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Braving Both Napoleonic France And Teenage Angst With Aplomb

Fiona Maazel's latest novel is Woke Up Lonely.

The way my mom likes to tell it, I wasn't much of a reader growing up. My chief complaint of every book she dumped in my lap was that nothing happens. Ten pages in and no one had died.

This was the '80s, and so it's possible my mom was feeding me novels and stories that smacked of the minimalist tradition in vogue at the time, but I doubt it. I suspect they were page turners, but that I rejected them for other reasons. I didn't even start to read until I was 7 or 8 — this part of my learning delayed by what strikes me now as a hostility to narrative.

Narrative is all about the mutable and out-sized passions we have to contend with just for being alive. But I was a stolid little kid, though by stolid I mean depressed, which means I just wasn't interested in other people's problems. Or other people or things, unless I thought I could excel in the process of knowing or working with them. But how often did I think that?

In my family, either you were great or you were nothing. My parents never advanced this thinking as an ethic or pedagogy, but it's what I grew up feeling, anyway. Which is why the very attitude that kept me from reading is probably what attracted me to it in the end. You don't need an aptitude for genius to read, though people will praise you for doing it anyway.

The first novel I read with any degree of engagement, from beginning to end despite its being 600 pages, was Desiree by Annemarie Selinko. I was 14, which was less a transitional year than a year to consolidate notions of malaise into one giant conviction to despair. My stepdad gave me the novel, thinking I might respond to the travails of an 18th-century silk merchant's daughter, Desiree, who ends up Napoleon's fiancee and later, Queen of Sweden.

Desiree narrates the story via her diary, which reads like YA for about 200 pages before it accedes to the consciousness of a slightly more mature lady. Rereading the novel today, it seems utterly misogynist, reductive and juvenile. And I am, I admit, a little appalled that it affected me so thoroughly when I was young.

Desiree manages to brave turn-of-the-century France with terrific aplomb; she pretends she's stupid, is treated like she's stupid, and ends up — according to the novel — getting Napoleon to capitulate to the Allies in 1815. The thing is, she really is a little stupid, though not unprincipled. I'd like to think that perhaps something about her deficiency as a thinker juxtaposed against the strength of her convictions appealed to me.

Perhaps, too, I sympathized with her husband, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. He is the more compelling of the two, having had to renounce his French citizenship and help defeat France at the Battle of Leipzig. Imagine having to abandon what you love because what you love has been colonized by a great evil — in this case the monomania of a pudgy little man from Corsica. I can see myself being attracted to that, as well. Or rather, I can see myself being attracted to these things as an adult.

But teenage me? My guess is that a novel about a girl of minor intelligence who feels on a grand scale and who walks across the grand stage of history opened up some possibilities. Not that I would ever walk that stage, but that perhaps I didn't have to walk the plank, either — that there was a way to fall into greatness without being great yourself.

I'm not saying this was a wholesome takeaway, just that the upshot was wholesome: I started to read in earnest. Empathetic experience had given me hope. I would read my way out of despair, which I've been doing ever since.

PG-13 is produced and edited by NPR Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fiona Maazel