Book Review: How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

I’m not sure I was stupid. It’s not that I didn’t understand anything my teachers talked about, it’s that when I did, I doubted I had. I believed there had to be a trick. Maybe I just assumed the world was more complicated than it was.

Isidore Mazal is the youngest of six children, with the particular misfortune of being born into an extraordinary family. His older siblings exhibit an array of exceptional talents and impressive intelligence, while Isidore is average at best but with a remarkable talent for understanding the world in the most literal fashion. Seeking guidance from his brothers and sisters who, though they claim to be worldly, often can’t see beyond their extremely narrow PhD thesis topics, Isidore attempts to make sense of his world. How to Behave in a Crowd is a clever and peculiar coming-of-age tale with an endearing narrator whose experiences are surprisingly relatable and humorous.

I felt I had to have something important to say if I was to request their attention. From a very early age, my sisters had made me understand that I wasn’t as smart as them but it didn’t matter, that I had other qualities, whereas I feared the reason my brothers never talked to me was because they didn’t think I was interesting enough.

While Isidore may not be talented in the traditional sense, when the family suffers the loss of their patriarch, he becomes the only one to tease out the grief of his mother and siblings. His thoughtful, empathetic nature serves his family well though it often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, most often by Isidore himself. Lost in this world dominated by adults, he struggles to carve out a place for himself. So he attempts to run away, multiple times, but each attempt is thwarted by the unbreakable bond he still has with his family despite their glaring flaws.

I believed if I ran away from home, it would make my mother happy. She always complained we weren’t adventurous enough, and while my siblings usually met her remark with the same indifference they granted statements of personal opinions in general, I, the youngest of the six of us, took it to heart. I didn’t want to be blamed for the others’ quirks. I wanted to be my own man. To be different. I mean, I had no choice but to be different (I wasn’t as smart or as good-looking as my brothers and sisters.), but I had no particular idea what kind of person I should be either. I thought I could as least try what my mother had in mind and be adventurous.

Written with all the wit and complexity owed to the Mazal family, Bordas has crafted a study in the ways families tear us down, build us back up and ultimately shape who we are despite all of our attempts to avoid this. How to Behave in a Crowd is brimming with quirky characters, though Isidore alone will find a place in your heart and settle there as he navigates the absurdity of the world.

The prelude was just about to end. I could tell because it closed almost exactly the way it opened- the same motif repeated- except it didn’t sound as light and heartening at the end as at the beginning because there was that big dramatic part in the middle that darkened and loaded and tainted everything.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Crown- Tim Duggan and Netgalley

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