Feels like: overhearing conversations between two people who don’t speak the same language.
Sounds like: “High Beam” by Chelsea Jade
What the world needs now is empathy, and if there’s anything Camille Bordas’ amazing new novel How To Behave In A Crowd is about, it’s that.
How to Behave in a Crowd is a character study about the usefulness of empathy in the modern world, a portrayal of a young boy navigating his way through the intricate intimacies of a family in suspension. The Mazal children are brilliant, next level PhD brilliant. It’s like an episode of the Partridge Family, but instead of singing and dancing to entertain strangers, the children stay in their rooms to study, barely coming up for air from their books, computers, and theses.
We are introduced to the Mazal children through the eyes of the youngest, Isadore, tenderly known as Dory though he would prefer Izzie. Dory is the reluctant biographer to his elder siblings, noting their achievements and comparing himself to them at every turn. He is not the brightest among them, nor the most talented, but he is lightyears ahead of them in empathy and human emotion. He’s perhaps the only Mazal child who takes the time to live his life while he’s growing—rather than rushing to whatever mental finish line the others have projected. While his older siblings have all skipped several grades, defending PhD’s in their early teens, Dory remains in grade eight with his fellow twelve-thirteen year olds.
Berenice is the eldest, setting an example for the others with her independence and aptitude. Next comes Leonard, the sociology prodigy. Aurore is working on her PhD in an extremely niche field in the sciences, whereas Jeremie is a brilliant musician, composing symphonies in his bedroom. Simone, the closest in age to Dory and the sister he shares his bedroom with, doesn’t know what she’s going to be famous for, but makes sure that Dory is consistently taking notes on her upbringing so that he can write a great biography of her life someday. If a reader can have a favorite sibling, mine is far and away Simone, because of her classic intellectual narcissism and inability to grasp her brother’s development. Her examinations of herself are so child-like in their self-absorption, yet she’s so intelligent it’s difficult for her to grasp that she’s just a kid.
(“If I were your advisor,” Simone said, “I would make commenting on the Internet illegal. I don’t think people should express themselves as much as they think they should.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. )
How to Behave in a Crowd reads like an effortless aphorism on how to witness life as you’re living it. Camille Bordas pairs Dory’s intuitive and giving nature with Denise, his best friend at school, a girl who sits with him during recess and lunch and waxes poetic about the sadness and pain of life. She’s depressed, anorexic, but not devoid of wry humor. The character plays as a less sadistic Wednesday Addams, and I fell instantly in love with her as a reader. Every scene with her and Dory was rife with possibility, honesty, and the brutality of growing up.
(“So you like girls?” I asked.
“I don’t like anybody,” Denise said.)
Though on the surface, How to Behave in a Crowd may seem like just another book about a family, and the family dynamics that make all families unique yet entirely relatable. But it’s more than that—it’s a book about appreciating the dilemma of feeling, to embrace or suppress? Dory is the heart of the Mazal family, the one experiencing life as it unfurls, reaching outside the family for friendship, value, mentorship. He’s the observer, humble and unafraid to be the sidekick rather than the hero, to let someone else shine. But the toll it takes on the one who can bear the weight of emotion for a whole family is phenomenal.
There is a couch with a stain, a stain with an unknown origin. Every sibling has a story of its arrival, but no one really knows how it got there. Dory is the only one who ever notices this stain. He brushes it with his fingers like a compulsion. By the end of the novel, he’s ripping the entire couch apart, cushion by cushion. Who do you turn to when you’re the one that others turn to?
I really loved, enjoyed, and appreciated this book. It felt important to be read during such a tumultuous and uneasy year, while America and all its ilk feel so unsettled, as if the world is just one dumpster fire after another. Empathy, observation, and intuition are the things that cannot be taught, but must be learned.
“I didn’t know what it was that made grown-ups think that teenagers were ready for a reality check all of a sudden, ready to find out that everything that happened or would ever happen to them was or would be either random or exactly normal, their experience no more or less uncommon than anyone else’s, after having been told the opposite and cautiously spared the truth for the previous thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years.”
“…the more I grew up, the harder it became to tell the difference between what was mine to organize and what wasn’t any of my business at all.”