My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Daphne de Vigan's No et Moi is a moving novel because it captures that golden space of time in childhood during which a guileless child, curious and optimistic, recognizes all that is flawed with the world and tries to change it.
When faced with an upcoming presentation for her social and economic sciences class, our young yet fiercely intelligent protagonist Lou decides to interview No, a homeless girl - or, as the French call it: une femme sans domicile fixé (SDF) - to discover what life on the streets entails.
Even before the day the task was assigned, Lou had already noticed No by the train station countless times. There friendship seems, in a way, 'meant to be.' It is such keen sense of observation on Lou's part, her curiosity and her endless capacity for caring deeply, that is so characteristic of her as the novel develops.
For a while, No and Lou meet regularly for coffee and form an initially tentative, but gradually more natural, friendship while the interviews continue. After Lou's presentation is over, however, No vanishes from her life - Lou, frantic to find her, eventually tracks her down and begs to see her. Yet Lou's request request is rejected by No who harshly responds, "c'est pas ta vie, tu comprends, c'est pas ta vie."
Independent as she is, Lou has a strong desire for companionship. Home is not a warm place; her baby sister died years ago, her mother struggles with depression and her father is often away for work. Thus, it is unsurprising that it is Lou who needs No - while No, despite caring about Lou, is ever-conscience of their different places in society and knows that they could never have a 'normal' friendship.
Yet, for a while, they do. Needless to say, friendship is the most significant theme in the novel. Le Petit Prince is quoted several times as Vigan draws to our attention the story of the fox and the prince. An unlikely pair, but close friends nonetheless because each is unique to the other. Is it not the same with No and Lou? The title of the novel, No et Moi, mirrors No's claim that "on est ensemble, hein, Lou, en est ensemble." Yet their bond is cruelly challenged.
Although the time during which Lou and No live together suggests the possibility of their friendship persisting, and indeed even seems to liven up Lou's family atmosphere, the heartbreaking reality of their relationship emerges without fail at the end of the novel.
No's problems do not dissolve even after she finds herself a social worker and temporary shelter. Forced to make a living, she dedicates herself to tireless working hours that eventually drive her over the edge and send her down the path of drink and smoke.
Bound on leaving and finding the life she deserves, No makes grand plans to leave for Ireland where her lover Loïc supposedly waits, and invites Lou to come along. Finally, however, we find out that Loïc was never there. Eventually, it is only No who quietly slips away, leaving No behind, restoring both of them to their 'proper' places and usual lives. It is a heartbreaking ending that throws into light the grand themes of the novel.
The maxim that encapsulates most of the situations in No et Moi and the one that Lou struggles to defeat, is this: les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Things are what they are. It radiates pessimism and the very fixedness that divides No and Lou and keeps Parisien streets dotted with SDFs. As Lou aptly and poetically puts it,
On est capable d’ériger des gratte-ciel de six cents mètres de haut, de construire des hôtels sous-marins et des îles artificielles en forme de palmiers, (…) on est capable de créer des aspirateurs autonomes et des lampes qui s’allument toutes seules quand on rentre chez soi. On est capable de laisser des gens vivre au bord du périphérique.
A major theme in the novel is therefore abandonnement. One could say that Lou was abandoned by her mother, who lost herself in her sea of grief. Lucas, Lou's classmate on whom she has a crush, is certainly left alone in an empty apartment while his mother wanders elsewhere. Finally, No herself has been abandoned by not only family and Loïc, but also society.
Beneath the skin of this young-adult novel lies a serious plea for reconsideration - for an evaluation of the way we let our societal constructs barricade relationships across social ranks. For a reassessment of the SDF condition in France. The limitations drawn by rank feature prominently in many French novels; Muriel Barbery, notably, deals with this problem specifically in L'élégance du hérisson, through which she reveals how the clever concierge considers herself worthless due to her social standing.
And here in No et Moi we have an endearing protagonist who battles to overcome these stipulations.A n admirable one-girl-band, Lou reminds us the importance of grit, the unconditional quality of a beautiful friendship and also the need to realize that les choses ne doivent pas être ce qu'elles sont - things do not always need to be what 'they are.'
Vigan leaves us with a piece of advice that No demonstrated so well:
Il suffisait de regarder autour de soi. Il suffisait de voir le regard des gens, de computer ceux qui parlent tout seuls ou qui déraillent, il suffisait de prendre le métro.
Ultimately, only someone like No - whose curiosity leads her to wonder about subjects ranging from "le sense de rotation de la la langue" to those qui "dorment enfouis dans des sacs de couchage" - has the sensitivity and acute awareness to notice the injustices of society and has the admirable drive to remedy them as best as she can.
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