Excerpt from Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Rat

A Novel

By Fernanda Eberstadt

Rat
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2010,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2011,
    304 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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Excerpt
Rat

The first time she is conscious of seeing her mother—whom she’d thought as much a part of herself as the scar on her forehead or her broken front tooth—judged by a stranger’s eyes.

Vanessa is taking Rat and the neighbors’ kids to the beach. To get to the beach from their place, you have to cross a highway. It’s not a megahighway—there are only two lanes—but it’s the kind of dead-straight, flat-as-a-pancake, five-kilometer stretch where drivers like to pretend they’re practicing for the Paris–Dakar. There’s a culvert that runs under the highway, which is where you are supposed to cross, but after it’s rained, the tunnel goes knee-deep in black mud. So Vanessa has made the kids scramble up the embankment, and now is urging them across the road.

There’s nothing hurried about Rat’s mother’s approach: she is strolling right into the threat of fast traffic, willing any oncoming cars to halt. Solenne, who is little more than a toddler, Vanessa is gripping firmly by the hand. Rat and Solenne ’s big sister, Emilie, are following closely, like chicks with the mother hen, hesitant, then scrambling in jerky moves to safety.

Only Jérôme is left behind. Vanessa yells at Jérôme to move his butt, but he has frozen. Remains stock-still by the far side of the road, seemingly unable to budge. It’s obvious neither he nor Vanessa is going to make a move, so finally Rat goes darting back and grabs him. Jérôme’s a year older than she is, but sometimes he just spazzes out. On the near lane, there ’s a gap in the traffic, but on the far side, as they cross, there ’s a van heading right for them.

You’d never think a machine could be sarcastic, but the lordly last-minuteness with which this van grinds to a halt exudes contempt. When they are safely across, Rat’s mama smacks Jérôme’s skinny butt. “When I say come, you come.”

The driver’s window’s down. He’s watching the spectacle with an air of disbelief. Then he leans out his window and says, “Lady, it isn’t your son who deserves the spanking.”

Vanessa’s eggshell skin stains red with anger. “Connard!” she shouts back. Her words are lost in the engine ’s departing roar.

Rat picks up Jérôme’s towel and bathing suit, but her head’s on fire. She ’s burning from the shock of seeing her mother as others might see her. Vanessa has done something demonstrably dangerous, and she ’s been scolded like a child for it!

“What an asshole,” Vanessa says, once they reach the beach. “What is it about people they can’t mind their own business, they have to stand over you, nya nya nya all the time?”

Rat doesn’t answer.

Vanessa takes her own sweet time choosing the perfect patch of sand, not too far from the water, not too damp, unrolling their mats and securing them with rocks. Jérôme and his sisters are already waist-deep in the sea.

When she’s done, she strips down to her bikini bottom and stretches out delicately on her mat. And only then notices that her daughter is still standing.

“What’s wrong?”

“What?!”

“What’s biting you?”

Finally Rat says it. “Mama, that was dangerous what you made us do. And why did you have to spank Jérôme?”

There’s an unspoken etiquette that’s been breached: unless you’re a teacher, you don’t smack other people ’s children.

Vanessa sits up, bare tits bobbling, instantly furious. “Look, whose side are you on, anyway? All my life people have been standing over me, telling me what to do, snipping at me for even breathing. You think it’s easy, lugging four sniveling brats to the beach? Would you rather be back at the house, broiling? Enjoy yourself. Relax, have a swim, live it up a little. And leave me the fuck alone. Okay?”

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Excerpted from Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt, pages 10-13 from the hardcover edition.
Copyright © 2010 by Fernanda Eberstadt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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