Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of five novels and one book of non-fiction.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her most recent novel, Rat, just published by Alfred A. Knopf, and reported the following:
I read a massive amount of contemporary fiction, and yet I am one of those indecisive cheapskates who loiters in bookstores, skimming through the Recent Release shelves, trying to figure out whether or not I want to take the plunge and buy the book. Now, thanks to Marshal Zeringue, I may just have found a system.

My own book, Rat, comes out pretty decently on the p. 69 test.

The novel is set in a honky-tonk beach resort in a gorgeous but godforsaken stretch of French Mediterranean coastline where I myself lived for six years with my husband and our two kids.

It tells the story of a French girl nicknamed Rat who is being brought up by her charmingly feckless single mother Vanessa. Rat is the product of a one-night stand. She has never met her father, an Englishman who picked up Vanessa one night in a seaside disco. Rat and Vanessa live in a kind of hand-to-mouth, waif-and-strays’ paradise, along with Morgan, an orphan whom Vanessa adopts. But when Vanessa’s new boyfriend begins taking an unhealthy interest in Morgan, Rat realizes that it’s time to take him away in search of the father she’s never laid eyes on.

Page 69 takes place in the bedroom which fourteen-year-old Rat and eight-year-old Morgan share. It’s the middle of the night. Rat is lying awake in her loft-bed, listening to the sound of her mother Vanessa and Vanessa’s boyfriend Thierry’s drunken brawling from the bedroom next door. She is terrified that Thierry, a big burly guy, is going to hurt her mother, who is tiny. She is trying to find someplace safe in her own head. She is already beginning to dream about going off to London to find her biological father, but she is scared to leave Vanessa with her abusive boyfriend.

Here is how it goes:
When Rat was younger, she believed in gods—the water nymphs whom the ancient Celts used to worship at the hot springs above Brix, or Artemis, who had the man who saw her naked turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hounds. Even Jesus—not Meme Catherine’s blue-eyed babe, but Max’s Jesus, who taught you not to judge and not to set too much store by worldly things. Now all she believes in is finding somewhere quiet in your own head.

Below, she can hear the soft rumble of Morgan’s sleeping breath. It’s the only safe sound to hang on to, like a match flicker you need to keep alight.

Normally at this hour of the night you might hear the owls hooting from their nest in the hollow plane tree. Or farmyard dogs barking, first one and then all the others. Or distant trucks rattling back and forth to Spain. Night sounds, lonely but not unpleasant.

Tonight all she can hear is the shouts from her mother’s bedroom, voices ugly with anger, recrimination. Rat tries to plug her ear holes with spitball Kleenex, but it doesn’t keep the sounds out.

Occasionally she can make out a word or phrase: Money. Lies. Money again. Most of what Vanessa and Thierry fight about is money.

The shouting is louder and angrier than usual. It seems as if it will never stop. Suddenly, Thierry’s voice, right outside her bedroom door: ‘Is that what you want, bitch, is that what you want? If that’s what you want, watch out, because you might just get it.’ And Vanessa, mocking, shrill, ‘No, it’s what you want.’

There’s a loud slam, a kind of thud, a crash like a chair being knocked over, a little scream from her mother. And silence.
I hope this extract will tempt readers to read my book.
Learn more about the book and author at Fernanda Eberstadt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue