I’m in the midst of becoming a Francophile for my next project. I’ve been watching French movies, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin feminine: 15 faits précis (1966) and Patrice Leconte’s Confidences trop intimes (Intimate Strangers) (2004). And, I’ve started tracking down French young adult fiction, with the help of some of the fabulous librarians on the YALSA boards. (Their collective knowledge is truly amazing.)

I’ve found that gathering up French YA in translation is a difficult task. (Did I mention I don’t speak French?) It seems we primarily export our culture (books, movies, music) and we don’t buy as many translation rights as other countries.

I’ve finished Like A Thorn by Clara Vidal, translated by Y. Maudet (Delacorte, 2008).

There were a few things that struck me about the book, and though I realize that it’s poor form to base a study off one subject, I have to start somewhere!

Like A Thorn is the story of Melie, who as a child is convinced her mother is two people – Rosy Mother and Dark Mother. In an effort to keep the Dark Mother at bay, Melie begins a series of rituals which leads one to believe that Melie might be mentally ill herself.

What struck me at first was the character’s initial age (9), and the age range on the book of 14 and up. It’s rare to see an American Young Adult novel where the main character grows from the age of nine up until the age of fifteen. We generally believe that a teenager would pick up a book, see that the main character is nine, and would put it down, assuming that the book was mis-shelved.

I also found Vidal’s sparse prose interesting. We skip through periods of Melie’s life, and are sometimes brought up to speed/discover our setting with a fragment – “A picnic by the riverbank” (page 5) or “Melie is fourteen” (page 87). Sometimes Melie’s emotional state is spelled out plainly to the reader, which is something I think we see less of in American YA.

But despite the thin volume and sparse prose (119 pages), the book explores some difficult subjects. An emotional abusive, possibly bi-polar mother. The potential for her daughter to have inherited the same mental imbalance (or possibly, to have the imbalance brought out sooner or with a deeper hold on Melie because of her tumultuous home life), and the willingness of the extended family to look askance at the mother’s illness, even as it deeply affects Melie.

The conclusion (which I won’t share) is also somewhat different than what we would see in an American young adult novel. I think that an American editor might feel that the ending was abrupt, and left more questions than answers. Also, we tend to want our main character to be a more active participant in the outcome, whereas in Like A Thorn, Melie’s mother acts on her up until the very end, almost as if Melie has to be given permission to separate herself from her mother’s life.

There’s also an interesting sense of detachment throughout the whole novel, but this I believe is on purpose. There is a detachment in the relationship between Melie and her father, as well as a varying gap between Melie and her mother (depending on whether it’s a Dark Mother moment or a Rosy Mother moment.) I think it’s interesting that Vidal puts this gap between Melie and her reader, using the sparse prose, the intimate third person voice and the times she steps in to give Melie’s emotional state – almost treating Melie as a subject rather than a character.

I’d be interested to hear though if anybody else has read the book, or has some additional insight?

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