British-born Drake makes her fiction debut with a novel narrated by an adolescent Parisian boy losing whatever innocence (not much) his childhood has allowed him.
To Paul, Paris’ wealthy sixth arrondisement near the Jardin du Luxumbourg is neither charming nor picturesque but “gray” and lonely. His high-achieving parents, Séverine and Philippe, moved to the bourgeois neighborhood only to be near a posh elementary school that ended up rejecting Paul. Overweight and poor at math, aware that he's always disappointed his parents, Paul finds himself on the cusp of adolescence and deeply unhappy. Having divorced a couple of years ago when Paul was 11, Séverine has just given birth to baby Lou with her rock-and-roll boyfriend, Gabriel, while Philippe lives in a St. Germaine bachelor pad and cares primarily about working out and his new Porsche. The only adult who pays attention to Paul is the maid, Cindy, who provides the comfort food he craves. Paul begins an unlikely friendship with a new girl in his class, bonding over their shared sense of being failures in their parents’ eyes. Scarlett is as unhappy as Paul and definitely as complex; strutting sexy rebel vibes but devoted to her dog and entranced by Lou, Scarlett previously attended a strict Catholic school until she was expelled. While their relationship remains platonic even after Scarlett and her boyfriend break up, Paul is thoroughly besotted. At the same time he keeps his eye on the machinations of the adults around him. He watches his snobby paternal grandparents make clear that Philippe can never measure up to his older, even more successful brother. He watches irresponsible Gabriel live off Séverine and Séverine’s desperate struggle against getting old. But then he inadvertently witnesses several deeply disturbing acts that will not surprise the reader but for which Paul is emotionally unprepared and which leave him feeling betrayed and more isolated than ever.
Drake overplays the mood of sexual menace but is masterful at showing her characters’ sorrows percolate up even through the novel’s most cynical moments.