Reviews Baby of Belleville
When her French composer-husband brings a few co-workers home from the Paris carwash where he is working to earn some money, Jane de la Rochefoucault gets the feeling that something odd is about to happen. When these co-workers steal a secret prototype car to fund a rescue plan for members of their Muslim brotherhood being held hostage, Jane’s mother-in-law hides them in her chateau while they work their plans—and Jane is embroiled in an adventure that will put her family in a bit of a predicament. Little does she know that her own famiglia connections will help save the day.
Anne Marsella’s novel combines the trials and tribulations of first-time motherhood, culture clashes, and marriage with an international crime caper. Mafia uncles, upper-crust communists, absent-minded avant-garde composers, and feminist academics are just some of the wonderful characters she has created to enliven her tale of raising a baby in Belleville, a multicultural, mainly immigrant section of Paris.
While the plot features some imaginative flights of fancy, there are wonderfully real depictions of events and issues that many mothers will recognize: concerns about whether or not to breastfeed, balancing work and family, setting up your home with limited income, and learning how to fit into life in a foreign country all come up in both serious and hilarious situations.
Recently Read: Anne Marsella’s The Baby of Belleville
In Anne Marsella’s* warm and funny The Baby of Belleville, hierarchy is put to rest, making room for an all-inclusive Paris, a Paris where equal time is given to French feminist philosophers, aristocrats, plumbers, DJs, shepherdesses and kung fu experts. Here, you’ll see Paris at an oblique angle.And yet at the same time her stories seem uncanny in their familiarity, as stories of love and motherhood often are.
What I really like about her books (I also recommend her novel Remedy, where the protagonist works in the fashion world), are her unusual heroines. Intelligent, good-in-their-skin but still self-doubting. Never doubting, however, their bodies. Marsella writes women who take belly dancing lessons without self deprecation: an antidote to chick lit. Her protagonists also have an uncanny ability to read the needs of other humans, and especially artists. In The Baby of Belleville, the protagonist Jane hires a plumber who turns out to be a talented creator. He makes a fantastical, mosaic toilet for her, asking 200 euros for his work. As Jane retrieves the money she feels tears coming on, “The truth was, I was being pulled by two contrasting emotions – the tragedy of spending two hundred euros on a toilet and the unforgivable slight of paying an artist so little for so much.” She sends him home with some Tupperware filled with osso bucco and risotto, remarking that “artists love to be fed Tupperware dinners, homemade meals they could heat up at their convenience, thus avoiding the creative drain of dinner socializing.” (123)Read More
Marsella contextualizes a very rich area of Paris in her novel, and being walked around the northeastern quartier evoked in The Baby of Belleville as if you live here is one of the great pleasures of the book. Jane often walks past the “Communist Egg” (I will never manage to pass it without thinking of this name again) and meets fellow mothers at Café Cheri(e) (for a nursing group called “la leche league”) before going to Tati for discounted shopping when she feels like a pick-me-up.
If you’re a nut for sentences (one of my grad school professors is into Gary Lutz, and this Lutz essay forever changed the way I read), Marsella’s got some mind-blowing language going on in her books. Here’s just one lovely example: “We peer out at the stretch of fields around us, the ubiquitous citrus trees coiffed in wooden trellises, the villages in the distance, the usual roadside eyesore” (277). And I loved the description of Jane’s baby’s first steps: “It is like watching Neil Armstrong softboot the moon, only better” (338).
Next I want to read her Patsy Boone, a departure for Marsella as it was written in French, mixing – no joke – precious 18th century French literary language with modern parlance. Her previous novel Remedy, about a woman working in fashion in Paris, had fun with fashion-ese – showing its strangeness – in a similar way.
Excerpt of The Baby of Belleville after the jump.
Here is one of the many hilarious appearances of a French feminist thinker – called Special K. A woman of great mind and greater contradictions:
‘I’m reading about Angelina Jolie,’ she says in response to my surprised look. There is not a trace of defensiveness in her voice. Here is a woman who knows no shame, who could parade proudly like Lady Godiva and never bat an eye. There is a decidedness about her, and one senses a hermetic meaningfulness to her actions; though their sense might escape most, a Tupperware tightness protects them from the outside agencies of ridicule and judgement. I do have a great deal to learn from her! And if only my mother could take a lesson or two…
‘She is to play the role of my heroine, Penelope, in the adaptation of my latest novel.’
‘That’s fabulous news! Goodness! Your book is going to Hollywood! And Angelina, well, she’s quite big isn’t she? What does Glamour have to say about her?’
‘Quod me netrit me destruit.’
‘Oh! Does she parlay in Latin?
‘Her tattoo does.’
‘She wears a tattoo across her lower stomach that spells this out.’
‘It means, “What nourishes me also destroys me”, is that right?”
‘Precisely. And this is the crux of our predicament, is it not? How does one nourish without destroying? How does one give life without giving death as well? This brings us back to the subject of maternal madness, Jane, and how Freud failed to take into account that THE DESTRUCTIVE DRIVE CAN BE REDIRECTED THROUGH SUBLIMATION TO BRING ABOUT A RETURN TO THE CARING ARTS…
Special K’s thought is cut short by a phone call from Umberto Eco. Throughout the book, all of her theories, even when she speaks, are in caps.
Oh, blessed are the books that give grad students a chuckle!
Francemag – Emily Rack
Narrated by an Italian-American living in Paris with her aristocratic French husband and newborn baby, this comic novel is an imaginative tale of motherhood. Struggling with her newfound role as a mother and with life in a foreign country, Jane de la Rochefoucault is facing more challenges than most new mums (kung-fu criminals, stolen cars, and a criminal mother-in-law to name a few). Set in the beautiful streets of Paris, The Baby of Belleville tells the comical story of a woman trying to balance marriage, babies, life and all the chaos that comes with it. Writing in a light-hearted, casual tone, author Anne Marsella manages to make the elaborate plot seem like a conversation with a good friend.
The Independent – David Evans
The narrator of Anne Marsella’s comic novel is an Italian-American woman who lives in Paris with her aristocratic husband and their newborn son.
The book centres on the trials and pleasures of motherhood: the teething, the first steps, the interfering in-laws. With its alliterative puns, neatly turned witticisms and acronyms such as “SJLYM”, which denotes the dreaded phenomenon of “sounding just like your mother”, it reads like a diverting article in a lifestyle magazine. The emergence of a subplot concerning a bloody kidnapping, then, is somewhat unexpected; it’s as if the mafia suddenly turned up halfway through a Caitlin Moran column.
The American Library in Paris
When You’re Strange
Anne Marsella is the award-winning author of four books, most recently The Baby of Belleville, a novel about life, love, and motherhood in Paris. Today, she writes about reconciling the writing life with parenting, the very human need to belong, and the pain of alienation that sometimes comes with living in a foreign country. We look forward to welcoming Anne to the Library. She will talk about how living in France for two decades has shaped her work.
“Writing in French has expanded and, in a sense, liberated my English,” she states. “I am not the least afraid of oddities in language; in fact, I welcome them because my main interest lies in questions of otherness, exile and in foreigners.” The New York Times writes that Marsella’s work “is a passport into foreign territory not to be found on any tourist’s map.” Join us for a fascinating evening on Wednesday 12 October at 19h30.
It is to fiction that I have always taken my contradiction du jour. As a new mother I found myself caught in a bind which tethers so many mother-artists: How do you reconcile the demands of the caring arts with those of the literary arts? Both will keep you up at night, drain your reserves and whimper and tantrum until you shower them with your undivided and loving attention.Read More
My answer to this question took the form of a novel, a prolonged narrative investigation, that did not so much settle any scores as sustain the contradiction and breathe new life into it. Motherhood in those early months seemed to fuel up on exhaustion. It was a brave, wonderful adventure but laden with burdens not the least of which was extreme fatigue and this, the writer in me knew, had to be transformed, lightened, made more livable. The picaresque form seemed just the right narrative fit for the novel that was beginning take shape in my mind. Defined by its energy and voice, the picaresque work can move from pathos to bathos without a blink, create another world rather than mirror the one we know most effectively; its comic tenor, often knowingly naïve, amuses, I’ve always found, in the most satisfying of ways.
My pícara – strange how rarely we encounter the feminine of pícaro – is Jane Maraconi de la Rochefoucauld, an Italian-American woman in Paris who marries into an eccentric, aristocratic family and gets involved in a plot that forces her to conspire with her family’s Mafia connections. The Baby of Belleville is a book about motherhood, but not only. It is equally concerned with questions of religion, different creeds and philosophies, with family relationships, with the human need to belong and the pain of alienation, and with sensibility and the possibilities of language. Melville wrote in The Confidence Man: “The people in a fiction… must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” This is by no means a prescription for the conventional novel, but it is one I naturally adhere to; motherhood in The Baby of Belleville might not be readily recognizable to all but I hoped to have made it an experience worthy of literature.
During my talk on October 12th I will discuss the relationship between the French and English languages in my work, as I write in both, and about the position of the polyglot writer. This discussion will also shed light, I hope, on the experience of foreignness put to the service of fiction and lived out as a form of liberation. In The Baby of Belleville, my character Jane navigates the mores and expectations of her French in-laws and husband, but also those of her Chinese and Muslim neighbors, and her manner of narrating her family’s tale resonates with these multiple voices and realities. Along with six other readers (forming the “Belleville Choir”), I will also read/perform several of the novel’s polyphonic passages that celebrate the foreigner in us and among us.
Metro – Tina Jackson
The follow-up to Anne Marsella’s lovely, modern-day, Paris-set fairy tale Remedy advertises itself as a ‘literary caper’.
In reality, though, it’s much more of a saunter: a languid, whimsical wander through the gently odd life of new mother Jane and the various human oddities who make up her world.
The Baby Of Belleville is a quietly subversive novel in that it resists easy categorisation, and it won’t appeal to readers who like their fiction obvious: it’s not chicklit, it’s not entirely a comedy and it’s not self-consciously literary, although it contain elements of each.
There’s a plot of sorts, involving missing stolen cars, Islamic kung fu specialists and a pregnant nun, that co-exists with Jane’s experience of new motherhood: Marsella is at her best as she writes about its joys and discomforts.
With the faint detachment of a foreigner living in a strange place, she offers the reader a sidelong glimpse of Paris and its idiosyncrasies that makes this strange, sweet book rather a find.