“Some languages, but by no means all, have the luxury of the word ‘daughter,’ but in many—and French is one of them—your sex is not distinct from your relationship to your parents. You will only ever have this one word to describe your being and your lineage, your dependence and your identity.” This entwinement of girlhood and daughterhood, decreed by the French word fille, suffuses every chapter of Camille Laurens’ analytical, fierce novel, Girl (translated by Adriana Hunter), which concerns two girls in particular, Laurence Barraqué, the narrator, and her daughter Alice. The book spans 1959 through about 2012 and serves as a document of the attitudes of the time, shedding light on how much the conversation around gender expectations and sexuality has changed in the past 10 years.
In the first half, Laurence dissects her childhood in an apparent quest to prove that one is not born, but rather becomes a girl. She begins at the moment of her birth, when the declaration of her sex is a disappointment to her parents, a fundamental disillusionment that will come to cast a long shadow over her relationship with them. In subsequent accounts of her education and family history, Laurence proceeds to dismantle the way that language and personal and societal expectations insidiously define, limit and underestimate girls. The revelations are not new, but Laurens’ literary treatment of the subject personalizes and elevates the indictment of a sexist society, in this case, Rouen in the mid-twentieth century. Laurence is dispassionate and sarcastic and embroiders these defining moments with the workings of her dark and visual imagination. There’s a propulsive quality to this anti-sentimental education. All secrets of youth are laid out for examination, implying a question of what sort of woman they will shape.
Laurence adjusts her narrative point of view to reflect her degree of control. Babyhood is described in the second person: “You meet your family. By ear and then by sight, and touch. First of all there’s Mommy. Mommy, it’s the first word you learn and it’s a girl’s name.” A strong first person takes over when Laurence asserts herself at ages 4 through 8 (“My first memory begins with screaming, as if a nightmare were waking me from the oblivion of sleep”), and then the third person expresses her sense of disassociation after facing sexual assault and its aftermath from age 9 through early adolescence (“Prince Charming vanishes from her dreams, so does the magic house. Her nights are populated by insects, they’re infested with cockroaches and spiders that get into everything.”) The first person returns with the awakening of desire and manifesting of sexual agency.
The second half of the book takes a leap forward in time. We next see Laurence when she is pregnant and in her thirties. The narration is back in second person; she is vulnerable and has lost the grip on her own agency (“You’ll give birth in the city where you were born. That will make your father happy”). In a visceral, haunting episode Laurens exposes what can ensue from such vulnerability when in the hands of a misogynist doctor.
Once Alice, her daughter, is in the picture, Laurence is an “I” again, a besotted mother. Alice becomes the focus of her narration, but now Laurence is on the defense rather than the offense in all matters concerning what constitutes a girl. She catalogs the years of Alice’s girlhood as she did her own, but this time her focus is not her sexist surroundings, but her worries about how Alice refuses to be a girl, in her language, her dress, her behavior, her sexuality. Laurence’s narrative voice has lost its incisive, astringent edge and perverse flourishes. The tone is clipped and her life with Alice is sketched in broad outlines.
Despite the apparent structural symmetry, the two halves of the novel feel mismatched. We’ve come to understand the girl Laurence, but how did she become this pliant mother? We know Laurence as the girl who spotted her father’s casual hypocrisies, pissed on stereotypes and scoffed at boys, despite all of the echoing insistence on their superiority. She is the teenager who indulged guiltlessly in masochistic sexual fantasies, unapologetically sought an abortion in order not to give up on her potential, ate up feminist theory, and pondered her own androgyny. In contrast, Laurence the mother is still clear-sighted, but also insecure, apologetic, submissive to male condescension and even to a slap from her husband. There’s a disconnect between the girl and the woman that does not seem to stem from authorial intention, though each half of the novel on its own is a coherent whole. This disjunct almost begs the question: what aspects of the transformation from “girl” to “woman” remain unnamed?
The unabashed feminist angle also calls up a metanarrative, about who this book is for. While women may feel recognition and relief at the naming of the subtle, poisonous forces that shape the course of their lives, there’s no doubt that the readers who would find the novel most shocking, instructive, and revealing are men. In this regard, it’s worth noting that, while its prestigious French publisher Gallimard, has endowed the book with its standard sober and generic cover, the English version, with italicized title and powder pink cover, is destined to exist in places where cis male readers dare not go, ironically enacting the dynamic its author decries.
Girl: A Novel
Published April 26, 2022