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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

La Petite

Michèle Halberstadt

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To purchase La Petite

Title: La Petite
Author: Michèle Halberstadt
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 111 pages
Original in: French
Availability: La Petite - US
La Petite - UK
La Petite - Canada
La petite - Canada (French)
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La petite - France
  • French title: La petite
  • A Memoir
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple, short, but nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       What is it with the literary treatment of French pre-teen girls and suicide ? In Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog twelve-year-old Paloma prepares to take her life; in La Petite the narrator -- it's billed as a memoir, so presumably author Michèle Halberstadt herself -- describes her own suicide-attempt at the same age. If the girl in Barbery's fiction is largely just being melodramatic, 'la petite' seems rather deadly serious, and the book begins with her describing the actual suicide attempt. True, there's no suspense as to whether or not it was successful -- the narrator begins in the present tense ("I'm twelve years old, and this evening, I'll be dead"), but clearly she's not writing this from the afterlife -- but she gives it a pretty good shot. (The fact that she hopes to off herself by overdosing on sleeping pills (and every other medicine her mother keeps ...), but chooses to do so by making the attempt in the morning, just before heading off to school rather than say at bedtime (when she could drift off undiscovered) does, however, suggest she's counting on being found out and saved before it's too late -- i.e. that this is just that typical suicide-as-cry-for-help, rather than a bona fide attempt at pulling the plug..)
       La petite describes the suicide attempt, until she drifts off, but then the bulk of the narrative presents what led up this attempt to simply "disappear". A defining moment came when she was eight, and she learns that her grandfather has passed away. The most important person in her life -- because he paid attention to her and took her seriously -- he is suddenly ripped from her life -- and the family doesn't even tell her until several days later, after the funeral.
       La petite has an older sister who constantly outshines her; always the smallest and youngest in class (bizarrely, la petite skipped a grade in school, despite not being a very good student), she has few friends. The parents are devoted to the two daughters, and do what they can to see to their future, but they're also emotionally distant, and la petite certainly feels quite apart from them. Two of her grandfather's friends remain idealized replacement-figures (after an uncle disappoints her), but they're also only very occasional presences in her life.
       Over the years, la petite feels herself shrinking evermore into insignificance; eventually, she can't take it any longer and simply fading out of existence seems the way to go.
       There's no surprise, however, back in the suicidal-present then, when (and that ...) she wakes up again: as it turns out, La Petite is a redemptive tale, with suicide merely the push la petite needs to get her act together. She figures it out for herself, too -- that so many of the faults she sees are not hers, but rather those of those around her -- and by the end finds herself healed, her future bright.
       It's a simply but effectively told tale. Halberstadt writes well, and the childish confusion and uncertainty are fairly convincingly presented, making for quite an appealing read. While the insight remains at the childish level -- the narrator reflects only through her younger mind, rather than retrospectively, with true adult understanding -- that suffices for Halberstadt's simple (but hence also limited) purposes.

       Note that the jacket copy -- reprinted also at the publicity page for the book -- claims: "Halberstadt vividly recounts the painful events that surrounded the death of her beloved grandfather when she was twelve years". That really misrepresents the focus of the book -- and is also flat-out wrong in one significant detail: it is made clear in the book that the narrator is only eight years old when the grandfather dies; she is twelve when she makes her suicide attempt.....

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 October 2012

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La Petite: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Michèle Halberstadt was born in 1955.

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