October’s Big Picture
written and translated from the French by Clémentine Beauvais
For the third year in a row, Mireille Laplanche, fifteen, wins a medal in her French school’s unofficial social media Pig Pageant, dedicated to humiliating the ugliest girls in school. Mireille is nobody’s victim, however, and she ends up connecting with two other “honorees,” sixteen-year-old Astrid and twelve-year-old Hakima. It turns out they each have reasons to want to be in Paris for the Bastille Day celebrations, so they turn this whim into a wild plan to bicycle the several-days’ trip to Paris, earn- ing money as they go by cheekily selling pork sausages (and vegetarian, for kosher and halal customers) under the name “The Piglettes” along the way. When social and even mainstream media pick up on their journey and they become celebrities as they cycle, the trip turns into grand theater—but what will be the final act?
Beauvais’ translation of her own French work gives Mireille’s voice the raucous comedic style of Britons Louise Rennison (Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, BCCB 5/00) or Sue Limb (Girl, 15, Charming but Insane, BCCB 10/04). While the narrator’s quippiness does sometimes hide some real hurt, it also is bracingly effective, and Mireille (daughter of two philosophers) rationally notes the advantages of being “amazingly good at not taking things seriously.” As with any crusade, multiple issues drive the crusaders, ranging from the treatment of the military (they’re accompanied by Hakima’s older brother, a wounded vet who uses a wheelchair) to family-related motivations, which believably add complexity and also determination to the journey. The sensibility is American-legible but definitely not American, with a lavish established food culture in the girls’ hometown and a relaxed and knowledgeable attitude toward wine and its consumption.
The looks issue is handled with audacity but also nuance; Mireille obviously hyberbolizes about their ugliness in her detailed descriptions but she’s not far off the mark, either. When the girls are smuggled into a university ball, cleaned up and coiffed and made up, they encounter a mirror and the narrative sets the reader up for a gauzy scene where the girls realize their true beauty. But “JUST KIDDING!” says Mireille. “We look exactly like what we are: three little piglettes, dressed up in synthetic ball dresses and painted like stolen cars.” She’d like to muster the much-vaunted love for her own body but she’s philosophical about the fact that she can’t, and she’s savagely witty about negotiating not just beauty but its cultural layers, as simultaneously pilloried and longed-for in her ideal appearance: “She looks like a princess, just as she is; it’s not her fault, it’s effortless, she’s naturally beautiful so it’s OK, it’s a feminist kind of beauty.” (Mireille embraces feminism but realizes that in her current school climate calling herself a feminist would actually be worse than calling herself a pig.)
Beauvais makes it clear that the girls’ appearance isn’t just an internal is- sue. She skewers social media with devastating and candid accuracy, in quotes that capture the range of postings about the Piglettes from sweet support to misguided self-promotion to downright and depressingly familiar misogynist hostility (“Every time someone says we’re amazing, strong, smart and admirable, somebody else, on some social network, somewhere, is writing that we’re repulsive fat cows, dogs, pigs, whores, sluts, bitches, hags, butt-ugly slags”). There’s also Mireille’s childhood friend and now enemy Malo, he who gives the Pig Pageant awards, who is so consumed with fury at the ugly girls’ rise to prominence that he seeks to sabotage their efforts.
Yet the Piglettes keep trucking, making something weird and wonderful of what was originally just a perverse impulse. Readers will rejoice in their sass, their celebrity, and their appreciation of French delectables. In addition, this is a wonderfully irreverent alternative to earnest claims about real beauty, and it comes with an invigorating message: flash a rude gesture to the haters and just keep cycling. (See p. 58 for publication information.)
Deborah Stevenson, Editor