by Camille Bordas
from the December 23, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
Camille Bordas is quickly becoming a regular voice in The New Yorker fiction. Her first piece was published in January 2017, followed by another in 2018. This year she’s had two. So far, I think we have only one of her novels in English, her English-language debut (yes, she is one of those extremely talented authors who is now writing in English despite it not being her first language) How to Behave in a Crowd, which came out in 2017. She has written two prior novels, Les treize desserts (2009) and Partie commune (2011), but I don’t see where those have been translated into English. Perhaps her recently work in English will lead to that happening soon.
“Only Orange” is narrated by a woman named Jeanne. I like its start:
All I said was that she must like beige a lot. I was trying to put my finger on why I disliked her so much.
Jeanne is talking about Audrey, her brother’s girlfriend of about a year. As it turns out, to everyone’s surprise, Audrey is color blind and doesn’t know she’s wearing so much beige. Jeanne is skeptical, and we see that she is not the kind of person to accept anything at face value.
“Only Orange” takes place on a holiday in Spain. Jeanne, her parents, her brother Lino, and Audrey are trying to make this whole family thing work. Jeanne does seem to love her family, but there’s a block in there. It might look like resentment, but to me it is almost disillusionment. She thought things would be better. They’re not, and as insightful and skeptical and intelligent as she is, she hasn’t dealt with that. When Jeanne finds out Audrey is adopted she is envious:
To be able to look at the people who love you the most and not have to worry that you’ll turn out exactly like them must be amazing, I thought. An endlessly renewable source of relief.
This leads to a fascinating, cynical look at Audrey from Jeanne’s perspective: always able to be a victim (“Even when Audrey was in her eighties, it would be one of the first things people said about her: ‘She didn’t have it easy. She was an orphan.'”).
Jeanne is pretty hard to sit with, but Bordas has also imbued her with something I can sympathize with. She’s pretty lost. She wants something, and she doesn’t seem to know what it is. She sees it in her family relationships, and she knows none of them have really done anything wrong, but it’s one of the reasons she’s got a blunt edge (another being that she is having nicotine withdrawals). Bordas portrays this with insightful passages like this:
Because my parents were both teachers (history for him, French for her), I’d grown up under the impression that people matured only in order to teach what they’d been best at in school to the next generation, and so on and so forth until the species died off. (I teach algebra.) But Lino deciding to pursue a career in doing instead of teaching, encountering success in the doing—that had opened a gate to possibilities I hadn’t been aware of. I had no talent whatsoever and couldn’t have taken advantage of the gate if I’d wanted to, but still. I felt like an idiot for not having seen it.
I really liked this story. It’s got a classic “holiday with troubles” vibe, and Bordas’s Jeanne is very well done. Like Jeanne, it doesn’t resolve in any particularly satisfying way, but it is a nice portrait.
I’m looking forward to what you all think. By the way, it ends at Christmas, so perhaps it can be partially festive for that reason!