Technically accomplished debut chronicles a difficult summer in the south of France from the point of view of a lonely 5-year-old.
Her English-born mother named her Peony, her French father called her Pivoine, but her nickname—Pea—seems most appropriate for this little girl tightly enclosed in a pod of her own anxieties and imaginings. She has few reasons for cheer, we learn in the opening pages of her artless narration. Last summer, “Maman came back from the hospital…changed from fat to thin, but she didn’t bring back the baby like she promised.” This past spring, shortly after Maman got pregnant again, Papa died in a freak accident; “he was driving his tractor on a hill and he fell off it and was squashed.” Reeling from her losses, feeling isolated and unwelcome in this small French community—Papa’s mother, Mami Lafont, openly wishes she would just go away—Maman now hardly ever leaves the house, or even her bedroom. Pea and her 4-year-old sister Margot are left to roam the countryside, attracting the attention of a kindly neighbor named Claude who has losses of his own to mourn. King accurately captures the speech rhythms and partial understandings of a small child as she unfolds the array of disasters large and small that befall Pea in the months before her brother Pablo is born; her descriptions of the French landscape and animals are exact and lovely. But as grown-up issues begin to loom large in the narrative, and as readers slowly sense that something is not quite right about Margot, the author’s decision to restrict us to Pea’s point of view comes to seem like a mistake. Revelations of adult complexities are couched in frustratingly simplistic language, and the resolution of Maman’s conflict with Mami Lafont, viewed through Pea’s eyes, lacks emotional depth.
Hampered by a limited perspective, though well-written and sometimes quite moving.