Isidore Mazal is eleven years old, the youngest of six siblings living in a small French town. He doesn't quite fit in. Berenice, Aurore, and Leonard are on track to have doctorates by age twenty-four. Jeremie performs with a symphony, and Simone, older than Isidore by eighteen months, expects a great career as a novelist--she's already put Isidore to work on her biography. The only time they leave their rooms is to gather on the old, stained couch and dissect prime-time television dramas in light of Aristotle's Poetics.
Isidore has never skipped a grade or written a dissertation. But he notices things the others don't, and asks questions they fear to ask. So when tragedy strikes the Mazal family, Isidore is the only one to recognize how everyone is struggling with their grief, and perhaps the only one who can help them—if he doesn't run away from home first.
Isidore’s unstinting empathy, combined with his simmering anger, makes for a complex character study, in which the elegiac and comedic build toward a heartbreaking conclusion. With How to Behave in a Crowd, Camille Bordas immerses readers in the interior life of a boy puzzled by adulthood and beginning to realize that the adults around him are just as lost.
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There was a darker brown stain on our brown suede couch. If I swept it one way with the palm of my hand, it almost blended in. I could squint and forget it was even there, but then a swipe in the other direction, and the stain reappeared, darker than I remembered, like I’d just fed it.
Everyone had a different story about the stain. Simone said I’d pissed the couch as a toddler, after running free from our mother’s bundle of towels, just out of my bath. “You went straight for the couch, stood right there on the armrest, grabbed your half- inch wang, and aimed,” Simone said. “I saw it, and Aurore and Jeremie, we never understood what came over you, Dory. It’s like you were on a mission.”
It didn’t, indeed, sound like me at all. First, the number of decisions that was implied, all of them transgressing my mother’s law (running naked and barefoot on the cold living room tile, grabbing my penis in public, pissing on the couch). Add to that Simone's choice of words: went straight, aimed, mission. Hers was the least believable story. Aurore and Jeremie didn't even back it up.
Other stories of the stain incriminated my siblings in turn: coffee stain (Berenice), nail polish (Aurore), jism (]eremie), tomato sauce (Leonard), paint (Simone). Each initial stain was, in every account, made worse by our mother's attempt to clean it with unfit detergent. One story was actually based on the premise that there had been no stain to get rid of in the first place, that our zealous mother had just wanted to bring a new shine to the couch and had ruined it with a single spray of the wrong thing.
The stain on the couch made me uneasy. It made me think I was the only one to notice things, to care. "Why do you care so much about the stain?" my mother once asked, and the thing is, I couldn't understand why no one else did.
I loved my family, I believe. Even though I'd known no other and couldn't really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other-of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.
One point every story of the stain converged on: the stain was at the very least nine years old. That was a long time to keep a stained couch, I thought. We were not poor.
I knew we weren't poor because we went to the beach every summer, and I'd learned in school (fourth grade) that being able to go to the beach was a privilege not everyone had. There had been a national campaign to raise awareness of children who didn't get to go away at all during summer. Our teacher, Miss Faux, had shown us clips of kids seeing the ocean for the very first time thanks to the money collected the previous year by the Let Them Sea charity. Some of the kids in the Let Them Sea videos hadn't even believed the sea existed before. They thought it was just a fairy-tale word, "like magic wands, or castles," one of them told the camera. Some of them were older than me. I remember one girl in the video-her name was Juliette, the caption said who'd looked more happy about her little brother's walking on beach for the first time than about her own discovery. She kept looking at him, his reactions. She barely glanced at the water herself. It had made me teary eyed a bit. After the clips, Miss Faux had put a tin jar with the Let Them Sea logo on her desk and encouraged us to put whatever we could in it, even just a penny or a dime. It was important, she'd said, that we realized that the smallest of our sacrifices could make a big difference in another kid's life. A couple of the boys in my class had lied and said they didn't get pocket money at all and sadly could not donate to the cause. During break, though, I'd heard them talk about all the candy they'd buy later, and why should they pay for poor people' vacations anyway, and how those of us who gave money were suckers who fell into the guilt trap like shit into the toilet bowl I'd put the whole of my monthly allowance in the Let Them Sea jar. I had waited for a moment where Miss Faux would see how much I tossed in, but either she didn't pay attention or she didn't think my generosity was worth commenting on.
At home, I was always first at the dinner table. My siblings would come down the stairs only at our mother's insistence, and then like drops from a leaking faucet, one at a time, at painful intervals. I had to wait for them all to get there to start eating.
"The father won't be coming back tonight," my mother said one evening as she and I were waiting for the others. I thought she meant he was dead, but he'd only been kept abroad by a conference and had missed his connecting flight home. She called him "the father" to give him extra substance, I thought. We saw him so little.
Mom ate from blue plates and bowls because she'd read that blue tableware cut your appetite, and she always wanted to lose four pounds. That night, she'd made whitefish, and whitefish you could eat as much as you wanted and not gain an ounce, she said, but still she'd set a blue plate in front of her.
"The father won't be coming home tonight," she repeated to Simone, then Jeremie, then Leonard, as each showed up. No one asked for details.
Aurore was particularly hard to lure downstairs at the time, or to even see outside of her bedroom. She studied permanently. She and Berenice were both writing PhD dissertations, on different subjects and in different cities. Berenice lived in Paris and didn't come back home too often.
"Will someone see if Aurore plans to eat with us tonight?" my mother asked, and she was looking at me.
"Aurore," I said through her door.
"Is this a life-or-death matter?" Aurore asked.
"It's dinnertime," I said. "We're all waiting for you." "Don't," she said. "I can't be interrupted right now."
"Do you want me to bring up a plate for you?" "You're an angel, Dory."
When I went to bed that night, Aurore still hadn't touched the whitefish and potatoes on the tray I'd left outside her door. The potatoes had started turning purple-gray. I ate a couple. I wasn't even hungry.
Sometimes, Mom hooked me up with a blue plate too.
Every August, Berenice came home from Paris and our parent put the six of us in the van and crammed suitcases in between our seats and at our feet. The van had no trunk. We used the suitcase as ottomans and armrests. The drive to the beach was about three hours, and we usually listened to the traffic news radio station the whole way. It was pretty repetitive, but at least when they played music between bulletins, it was songs we all knew, which my mother thought was nice-not that we sang along to them or anything. It brought the generations together.
I don't know why we went to that beach every summer. I don’t think anyone had particular affection for it. None of my three sisters would leave our bungalow (the same one every year) before five p.m.-they were all very light skinned and feared getting sunburned-and when they did go out, it was only to keep doing what they'd been doing indoors, which was reading or when their eyes got tired, talking to each other about what they' read. Leonard looked at people and took notes all day. Jeremie liked digging holes in the sand and lying down at the bottom of them. Summer after summer, the holes got deeper. At some point, it became impossible for Jeremie to get himself out of the holes without outside help, but he didn't seem to mind. He knew someone would come check on him eventually. He just liked to lie there on his back and look at that rectangle of sky he'd framed for himself, and once, when our mother informed him he could lie on the beach with her and me, at sea level, and see exactly as much sky, more sky, even, she believed, Jeremie agreed with her but added that he would also have to see a bunch of strangers in bathing suits.
The father and I were the only ones to actually go in the sea. He swam while I threw myself at oncoming waves, not too far from the shore, waiting for him to swim back to me. That's as close as I could get to sharing something with him, even though I was scared to go far out like he did. I wasn't exactly sure what the father did for a living but he did it away from us. Germany, China, Spain. Some sort of engineering. When teachers in school asked what our fathers' jobs were, I said mine traveled, and it seemed to be accepted as a valid occupation. Like any kid whose father didn't have a cool-sounding job, I assume, I hoped that mine was actually a spy. It had to happen sometimes that these fantasies turned out to be true, and I believed my chances were in fact higher than other kids' because my father traveled abroad a lot, so there was, at least, potential for covert missions and secrets, whereas the spydom of other fathers was unlikely, given that they worked in town, where nothing much ever happened.
We didn't see the father much, but when we did, on weekends, or in the summer, it seemed he couldn't wait to get away from us again. He swam a little farther every day. I'm not making that up to sound dramatic or anything. He did have this device he wrapped around his wrist that measured his progress, and he would announce a new record distance to us each morning.
My siblings loved swimming at the pool back home. They were all great swimmers and had bodies that proved it, athletic and lean, but the idea of swimming in the sea disgusted them. My mother claimed she couldn't swim, and it worried me. I wanted her to learn. "What would happen if I started to drown?" I'd ask. "Would you just watch me die?" She'd say that if I drowned probably one of my siblings would go in the water to help me out She'd always rush the pronunciation of the probably, but never once did she forget to say it.
Simone was the one who disliked summer holidays the most My other siblings were already in college or grad school, so I didn't really make a difference to them where we were: they always had "research" to work on. But Simone still needed to be assigned work, and was of the opinion that school breaks were a waste of time. She'd skipped any number of grades over the years (she was only thirteen, a year and a half older than me and already in high school) but she would've done the rest of her curriculum nonstop if that had been an option. She always got strangely nostalgic, though, when the time came to pack the car and go back home. Any other time, she was fine being in the middle, but she demanded a window seat for the ride back. She said looking at the seashore fade away through the window was good way to get a grasp on her melancholy, and that being able to pull from a store of melancholy was what made great artists. "Car trips make great artists?" I asked, making sure I understood what my sister had said. "Car trips back," Simone specified.
The summer after I found out about kids who never got to see the ocean, I tried to be less bored, to look around me through their eyes and be amazed like I'd seen them be in that video. I found it hard to marvel at the water, though, and the waves, without encouragement. I wondered if a person needed to be looked at while enjoying something in order for that person to really enjoy it, and whether that was why that girl Juliette had only been looking at her little brother looking at the sea when they both saw it for the first time-to make sure he understood he had to enjoy it. I watched Simone being melancholy all the way home, but it didn't seem like she needed an audience.
My parents didn't look very much in love to me, and I thought it was my fault. I guess it's what happens when you're the only one to notice a thing: you feel responsible for it. They didn't really kiss, just a dry smack on the lips in the mornings when the father left for somewhere. They only seemed to exchange practical information about appointments or taxes, sometimes us. I thought they were waiting until I was old enough to move away to get a divorce.
I once went a whole week without seeing Aurore. Our bedrooms faced one another, but she rarely left hers. When she had to, for mandatory family dinners (one birthday or another), she looked out of place. I won't say much about our house because I'm really bad at picturing three-dimensional spaces, let alone describing them. I could never tell whose bedroom was the one right over our kitchen, for instance. I'm not good at drawing either. But basically: we had a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room we never ate in on the first floor, and then four bedrooms and on bathroom upstairs. I shared a bedroom with Simone. My parents’ was next door. My brothers' and Aurore's were across the hall from us.
I missed Aurore's bedroom. When I was smaller and she was writing less important papers for school, she'd let me sit under her desk for hours. It was a panel desk, so I was enclosed on three sides. The fourth side opened onto Aurore, who worked with her legs up and folded half-lotus. All I saw of her was knees and bare feet, and I had all the space beneath the desk to myself. She never asked what I was doing under there. She had total respect for my privacy. I was so silent she sometimes forgot about me, though. She'd start stretching her legs for blood flow and I'd say, "Hey!” and she'd apologize and fold her legs back up.
Most of the time, I did nothing at all under there. I'd started drawing a mural in Crayola on the underside of the desk, but I only worked on it sporadically. I could never really see what I was drawing anyway, it was so dark. One day I started adding boogers to the mural, for texture. I felt guilty about it, but couldn't stop.
When Aurore decided I'd gotten too big to sit under her desk it hurt. I begged for one last afternoon, mainly so I could scrap off all the dried boogers from the mural. At the end of the day Aurore could tell I was sad and she said, "I'll get a bigger desk for us one of these days," but she never did.
I believed if I ran away from home, it would make my mother happy. She always complained we weren't adventurous enough, and while my siblings usually met her remark with the same in difference they granted statements of personal opinions in general, I, the youngest of the six of us, took it to heart. I didn't want to be blamed for the others' quirks. I wanted to be my own man. To be different. I mean, I had no choice but to be different (I wasn't as smart or as good-looking as my brothers and sisters), but I had no particular idea what kind of person I should be either. I thought I could at least try what my mother had in mind and be adventurous.
It was unclear, though, what an adventure was. Jeremie, the younger of my brothers, had been offered chances to tour Europe with two different philharmonics: those would've been adventures, according to our mother, if Jeremie hadn't declined both opportunities, stating he preferred keeping cello a hobby. But when my other brother, Leonard, had begged my parents to let him go spend the tenth and following grades in boarding school, my mother hadn't thought it qualified as adventure, even though Leonard had tried hard to sell it as such. He'd said boarding school was actually the ultimate adventure, that Flaubert had written that whoever had known boarding school at a young age knew everything there was to know about society, and that Bourdieu backed this up entirely, and that Flaubert and Bourdieu were the two smartest men who had ever lived. I was four when Leonard made that speech, and the reason I remember it is because I hadn't really been aware that anyone existed outside of our family before that, and hearing that there not only were other names than ours (Flaubert, Bourdieu) but that they belonged to smarter people than my parents, that no one around the table not even my parents-objected to it, made me panic and I started crying. My mother took advantage of my tears to seal her refusal "See," she'd told Leonard. "You're upsetting your little brother. Dory doesn't want you to leave us. No more of this boarding school nonsense."
Almost eight years had passed since then and I still wasn't sur what an adventure entailed, and whether Leonard resented m for crying that day. He'd just graduated from his master's program with all possible honors, but he was still sore and regularly reminded our mother that he would've been a better sociologist had he not been denied the boarding school experience.
Judging from the movies I'd seen, it seemed adventures were things that occurred outside of home or school, and that the merely made you meet people if you went on them alone, whereas at least one crew member had to die if you went out on an adventure with a group. So I decided to go alone (I didn't have friend anyway), and one night, on my sister Simone's bike, I ran away from home. The plan was to go to Italy, because it looked like a good life. I hadn't thought about how crossing the Alps on bicycle might be a challenge. Not a mile out the door, I got tired and decided it would be easier to just go to the big city three mile west and hop a train from there.
By the time I made it to the train station, around two a.m. the place was deserted save for a few bums sleeping in corner and two travelers in shorts and hiking boots, each reading to the other from a different hard-sounding-language-to-French conversation guidebook. There was no train scheduled for any time before 4:55, so I just sat on a bench by the "Departures" board, where all the platforms started or ended, depending on how you looked at it, and I waited. I could see lines and lines of shiny black train tracks ahead but no trains anywhere. I wondered where they were spending the night.
"What do you have there?" one of the bums shouted from the corner he occupied. He was eyeing my backpack.
"Garbanzo beans," I shouted back. "Bears of honey. Canned tuna. Underwear." I was trying to remember everything I had packed and give the bum an exhaustive list. I think he was interested in the canned tuna because he started walking toward me after said I had some. "Soap." I kept going while he approached, lowering my voice as he got closer. "A flashlight. Orangina."
"Orangina?" the bum said, appalled.
"That's all we had," I said apologetically.
"Wait 'til your mother just refilled the pantry next time you decide to run away, kid," the bum said, and he sat down next to me. He didn't smell as bad as other homeless people I'd seen. He smelled like damp cardboard.
"So you don't have any kind of weapon in here," he said after I was done with listing what I had. "If you're going to be on your own, you'll need a weapon," he said. "You can't just walk around like that, a little boy like you. There are some crazy motherfuckers out there. Fucked-up shit happens to cute little boys like you." "I'm not cute," I said, and I wasn't fishing for compliments there, but trying to see if my being a little chubby might protect me from potential killers. The homeless guy took a closer look at me.
"You're cute enough for a psychopath," he said.
"Don't they prefer little girls, though?" I said, hopeful.
"They go for anything, kid. Anything that bleeds, all kinds of children, it doesn't matter, animals, women-anything."
He started scratching a wart on the back of his hand.
"You should put duct tape on that and leave it alone," I said
"Just cover it with duct tape, a new piece of duct tape every day until the wart disappears."
The homeless guy looked at me and repeated, "Duct tape l and laughed, I don't know if at me or at an old joke he might've heard before about duct tape.
"It really works," I said. "My brothers and sisters, they're big swimmers. They all caught warts on their feet at the pool when they were kids, and my mother tried everything-nothing work better than duct tape."
"That is disgusting," the homeless guy said. "Public pools are disgusting."
"Now we all wear flip-flops when we go," I said, so he wouldn't think I was disgusting too.
"Flip-flops won't help you any against fungus ... the foot bath thing they make you go through before you get in the pool Ugh. I don't know that flip-flops protect you any against all that footbath fungus."
"People say they do."
"People say strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream," he said
I thought that was a clever answer. I thought he might know where the trains came from in the morning.
"There's a depot that way, by the stadium," he told me. " went there a few times, sneaked inside empty train cars for the night."
"Sounds cool," I said.
"I prefer being outdoors, actually. A train depot is not such a great place to wake up in. I keep it for when it's real cold out."
I thought I was stupid for saying spending the night in a train depot sounded cool, but the homeless guy didn't give me a hard time about it. He knew I had a lot to learn, I suppose.
"Did you say good-bye to anyone before you left home?" he asked me, and I said I hadn't, that it would've ruined the whole thing.
"If I'd said good-bye to my sister Simone, say, she would've told my mother right away and my mother wouldn't have let me leave," I explained.
"Well, sure," the bum said. "You don't say good-bye to a family member. But you have to say good-bye to someone. Someone who can tell the police it was your decision, you know? So your poor mother doesn't freak out even worse and believe you've been abducted and killed when she finds out you're gone. Don't you have a little girlfriend or something?"
I gave it some thought. I liked the Juliette girl from the Let Them Sea video, but we had never met. I guessed Sara Catalano was cute. I'd thought about her many times at night, before falling asleep. Maybe I was in love with her. She was too popular for me to have a conversation with at school, but I knew where she lived; I could probably go say good-bye to her. Thinking about what I would tell Sara, I realized I was relieved I'd forgot ten to do something important before running away, something I would have to go home to fix, and that I would get to have a good night's sleep in my bed before fixing it. The homeless guy seemed to be someone whose advice I should listen to. There might've been a flaw in his reasoning, though.
"But if I say good-bye to someone," I said, "and people worry less about me, then what happens if, on top of running away I actually do get abducted? If I'm made prisoner? No one will come looking for me if they think I'm happy living my adventures somewhere."
"Well you can't have your cake and eat it too, buddy," the homeless guy told me.
"I don't see where the cake is, in that situation," I said.
"The cake is your freedom," the homeless guy said. "Eating the cake would be to have people worry about you. You can' have both."
He raised a sad arm and I thought he was going to point a something but the arm fell back on his thigh right away.
"The rest," he said, "not knowing what's gonna happen to you, if you'll get abducted or raped or killed and whatnot, or i people will leave you alone and you'll get to be happy, well, that' like not knowing whether the cake will be good or not."
He sounded like he knew a lot. I tried to remember if I'd ever disliked any kind of cake. I knew he'd been speaking of figurative cakes, of course, but I guess I was hungry. None of the foods I'd brought with me sounded appealing.
"So, you're going home?" the bum said after a minute. I'd been staring at emptiness, thinking about cakes, but the sound of the bum's voice made me focus on the first thing ahead of us. It was an ad for a brand of ice cream, Carte D'Or, more particularly for the strawberry flavor. "Voted Best Flavor b YOU]" it said.
"Well, yeah," I said. "I guess you made it clear I was unprepared."
"Good," the bum said. "Now go home, get a weapon, and say good-bye to someone."
"I will," I said, and I got up and extended my hand to shake the bum's.
"You're not gonna need your cans of food back home," he said. I left him everything.
Excerpted from "How to Behave in a Crowd"
Copyright © 2018 Camille Bordas.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessaryto reveal certain aspects of the story in this novel. If you have not finished reading How to Behave in a Crowd, we respectfully suggest that you do so before reviewing this guide.
1. Isidore's character is often identified by his family members as the "sensitive" one, as opposed to the intellectual one. Why do you think they see him that way? Do you think that social intelligence and academic intelligence are mutually exclusive?
2. About halfway through the novel, Dory ceases in his attempts to run away from home. Why do you think he gives up on this idea? Why do you think he was doing it in the first place?
3. Early in the book, Simone defines pretentiousness for Dory. Do you agree with her claim that she's not actually pretentious?
4. What do you make of Isidore's family dynamic? Do you think of the Mazals as a dysfunctional family, or do you believe that they simply have their own way of functionning?
5. Discuss Denise's character. What role does she play in Isidore's life? What about Rose's character?
6. Do you agree with Simone’s idea about the funnel? Does Dory, as the novel progresses, travel further down the funnel? Do any of the characters attempt to climb up the funnel? If so, do any succeed?
7. Discuss the V-effect as it relates to Dory’s descriptions of some of the novels more startling moments (e.g. the father’s death, the loss of his virginity, his final encounter with Porfi).
8. In their final scene together, Daphne asks Dory if, after she dies, she will weigh on his life, to which Dory responds, “I can’t promise you anything.” Is this honest answer ultimately cruel of him or kind? Do you think he would have answered the same way had he been asked the question at the start of the novel? Would his answer have been any crueler or kinder?
9. Why do you think Dory can’t look at Leonard after having read what Leonard wrote about him?
10. Dory ages two years over the course of the novel. How does he change? How does he mature?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hmmmmm.....Took me awhile to get into the character-driven....matter-of-fact writing style of this novel. It's so different with little to no plot, and (for me) leans toward more of a character study. Anyway....The Mazal family members are all highly intelligent....but rather cold....distant....loners for the most part who spend much of their time indoors studying. Even when tragedy strikes, the announcement is monotone...and the immediate reaction (by family members) a nonevent, but there is grief. Among the six children, the focus here is on the youngest, Isidore....who prefers to be called Izzy vs. Dory. Izzy is just about twelve, an obviously caring and sensitive young man....unlike the rest of the family. He has an excellent memory, but no friends to speak of and spends much of his time trying to figure out how to fit in...understand adults, or...trying to escape them. HOW TO BEHAVE IN A CROWD is described as a "darkly comedic novel" and although I did laugh out loud a few times; overall, I found it to be rather sad....even shocking and heartbreakingly so in one instance....but I loved Izzy, his courage to ask tough questions....his ability to figure things out....and the way he gave comfort.