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Piglettes, by Clémentine Beauvais

From Justine Heynemann’s theatre adaptation of Clémentine Beauvais’s ‘Le Petites reinnes’
Cindy Doutres

Title: Piglettes (originally published in French as Les Petites reines)
Author: Clémentine Beauvais (translated by the author)
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Year: 2014 (translation 2017)
Pages: 287
Order: Pushkin Press
What it is: A YA novel telling the story of three schoolgirls who fight back against those seeking to shame them on Facebook
Strengths: Funny, written with a light hand and a deft touch
Weaknesses: We need to talk about colours used on book covers.
Excerpt: You can hear Beauvais reading an extract from the book here

For the last two years Mireille Laplanche has won the Pig Pageant - a reverso beauty contest - organised annually on Facebook by fellow students at the Marie Darrieussecq High School in Bourg-en-Bresse. But now she finds herself on the bottom step of the podium, behind first-time entrant Astrid Blomvall and, in second place, Hakima Idriss. As a two-time winner, Mireille has developed a coping mechanism for the Pig Pageant. Astrid, though, is unused to such things, and seeks Mireille’s advice:

“How do you deal with it, winning the Pig Pageant at Marie Darrieussecq? It’s hard... It’s really hard, seriously.”

“Oh, I’m amazingly good at not taking these things seriously. I know that my life will be much better when I’m twenty-five; in the meantime, I can wait. I have a lot of patience.”

“It’s sad to have to wait so long for things to get better.”

I want to say, Oh, only for the first three years. Then you get used to it. But clearly poor Astrid, at the Catholic school, hasn’t had the same training as me; it’s unlikely she got told often enough that she’s fatandugly. Whereas it’s happened to me so many times that I quite simply laugh it off. It runs off me like water from a lotus leaf.

Except sometimes when I’m a bit tired, or on my period, or if I have a cold; then, all right, sometimes I get slightly less watertight. But not tonight. Tonight I’m fine, and the Pig Pageant winner needs me.

Three years before, when Mireille won the Pig Pageant for the first time, she was far from watertight:

I can’t tell Astrid the truth, which is that, that night, three years ago, after discovering I’d been awarded the gold medal in the Pig Pageant, I ate a Hawaiian pizza topped with tears and snot, and spent three hours watching videos of cats riding Roombas on YouTube.

Mireille and Astrid decide to cheer up the other Pig Pageant podiumer, Hakima, and in so doing set in train the novel’s main narrative drive: Hakima’s brother Kader served with the French army in some overseas war – nicknamed here Problemistan – and there had his legs blown off when his patrol was ambushed. He was the only survivor and blames one of his commanders – nicknamed here General Auguste Sassin, A Sassin for short – for what happened to his comrades. Sassin is due to be honoured on Bastille Day at a garden party in the Élysée Palace thrown by the French president. The news of this has upset Hakima more than her second-place finish in the Pig Pageant. Long story short, the three girls decide to crash the garden party.

Hakima isn’t the only one with an interest in crashing the Élysée garden party. Astrid wants to crash it as her favourite band, Indochine, will be playing there. And Mireille wants to crash it because her biological father will be there:

My father is half French, half German. For confidentiality purposes, I shall call him Klaus Von Strudel. A professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Klaus writes philosophy books. He was also my mother’s supervisor for her doctoral thesis, and supervised her so well that she ended up pregnant with me. Alas, their relationship had to remain forever secret! For Klaus was at the time – and still is – the husband of someone with a lot of potential. The proof: that someone has now been the president of our beautiful country of France for the past two years. I will call her, to keep things simple, Barack Obamette.

The cycling angle? The three girls decide to use bikes to get to Paris for the Bastille Day garden party in the Élysée. They also decide to use their 500 kilometre, week-long journey as a way of fighting back against the organisers of the Pig Pageant, roping a local newspaper into reporting their plan to cycle from Bourg-en-Bresse to Paris. Dubbing themselves the Three Piglettes, the girls become a cause célèbre as a nation takes them to their hearts and the tool used to troll them – the web – is turned to a higher purpose.

Translated by the author herself, Piglettes manages to feel both foreign and familiar at the same time. Writing about the task of translating her own novel Beauvais has said she wanted the translation to have that “ghostly French presence, that labyrinthine syntax, that excess of adverbs” but at the same time the whole thing flows along at a rapid pace and with the fluidity - and humour - of a native English speaker.

Like Caroline Vermalle’s George’s Grand Tour, this is a story that charms you, and a story packed with messages. Beauvais, though, is far more gentle, far more subtle, in the ways she presses home her messages. The three girls grow on their journey in ways that the intended audience – young adults – should be able to relate to.

What really keeps the whole thing alive, though, is the psychological depth brought to the tale by the narrator, Mireille Laplanche. She shows you both her tough exterior, able to laugh everything off, and her fragile interior, her toughness a defence mechanism that puts her at a distance from the world. The girl can make you laugh. But she can also make you cry.

Les Petites reinesa punny title – was a smash hit when originally published in France in 2014, winning prizes for Beauvais and, after several years and other books, turning her into an overnight sensation. It’s been adapted for stage. It’s been optioned for the screen. It’s been, well, popular. And, I’d say, deservedly so.

If you know a young adult – tween or teenager – and you want to infect them gently with the cycling bug, Piglettes is as good an idea as I can think of. But it’s also something you might want to curl up with yourself on one of those days when things need cheering up: it’s better than a Hawaiian pizza topped with tears and snot. And may even top three hours watching videos of cats riding Roombas on YouTube.

French and British book covers
French and British book covers