An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava
Author: Stephanie LaCava
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / 1990s / Adolescence / France / American Ex-Pat / Coming-of-Age)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (12/4/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal!
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: An American ex-pat shares her experience living in a Parisian suburb in the '90s and the crippling loneliness and depression that dogged her.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: I do -- I find it very charming and in person, the matte background and the slightly glossy illustrations are catchy.
First line: I was always strange.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like found objects, awkward memoirs, and Parisian escapes.
Why did I get this book?: Paris. I'm a sucker for all things Parisian.
Review: I didn't know what to expect with this book. While the blurb tells me something ('A haunting and moving collection of original narratives that reveals an expatriate’s coming-of-age in Paris and the magic she finds in ordinary objects.') it didn't convey, I think, the real personality LaCava brings to her book. In further crankiness, I thought the subtitle ('A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris') as off-the-mark as the blurb. I found this book to be a memoir of depression, portrayed in a series of playful, odd vignettes, voiced by a lonely American desperate for connection and unable to find the tools to get out of her head and be more present in the world.
In the early '90s, LaCava's family moves to a suburb of Paris. She's sent to an international school where she finds herself isolated and unhappy. Teased by her classmates, she starts collecting objects in a kind of obsessive cataloging endeavor, as if naming and placing things would help her find herself. LaCava shares the experience of her crippling depression that broke my heart and resonated with me -- she and I seem to be approximately the same age, and while she was feeling like an outcast in '90s Paris, I was an outcast in '90s South Dakota. (Those who love the '90s will enjoy that bit of ambiance -- My So-Called Life and Nirvana feature in her vignettes, for example.)
The book's narrative style is quirky, and I think readers will either love or loathe it. Interspersed in her vignettes, LaCava includes footnotes about an object or person, usually providing some quick trivia or history. The object in question is almost always paired with one of illustrator Matthew Nelson's drawings. For LaCava, these objects are obviously totemic, deeply personal, and emotionally resonant, and the book's physical design -- cloth-bound cover, small size, and deckle-edged pages -- was tactile-ly satisfying, making me read a little more slowly, savor more, as if LaCava and I were in conversation.
While much of this novel worked for me, it isn't a perfect memoir. Readers wanting a cohesive narrative and accounting of time will be disappointed, I suspect. There is a very strong sense of distance between LaCava and the reader, perhaps an echo of the distance she feels from others. The narrative jumps from 1996 -- when she's 13 -- to 2009, and I found that a bit jarring. Toward the end, LaCava shifts from a self-introspective accounting of time to replaying conversations between herself and others which didn't always work for me. (In the seven-page vignette where she meets a former classmate, the conversation circles mostly around how pretty she is, and touching lightly upon a kind of throw away mystery from earlier.)
I found LaCava seemed to need to punish herself for her debilitating depression -- she remarks in a 2009 vignette about how selfish she was, and in a later 2011 vignette, she quotes her mother as saying the same thing. It broke my heart a little, for however 'badly' LaCava might have behaved as a girl-almost-a-teen, she obviously needed help. Moody doesn't equal selfish in my book and I don't know if she felt as if she had to make 'amends' to people in her life for her depression, but it made me angry on her behalf.
I wouldn't recommend this exactly as an armchair escape to Paris -- while LaCava shares a passion for certain places, she evokes some strongly while others sort of just float in the background. As a memoir of a time and a place, of one person's pain, this is lovely, sad, moving, and odd.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of An Extraordinary Theory of Objects to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 12/20.
[Yes, this is a two day giveaway, and I'm sorry to make it so brief, but I really really really wanted to get this into someone's hands and I'm MIA after 12/21 so...there you are. Forgive me!]