Baileys Prize Longlist read: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill


  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374162662
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374162665

I’ll have to speed up my thoughts on these Longlisters, as my books read pile is growing taller and taller, and we won’t discuss Mount Readmore. I’ve pulled off both the hikers and sherpas; an avalanche is imminent.

I felt the heft of this current Baileys Longlister and knew I was looking at two to three days reading time, plus a day writing up the review. That’s three more days than I can afford to take away from my life right now. Unless, of course, it was as great as it turned out to be.

Four-hundred sixteen pages in one day, lads and lasses. One day. If I think fast thoughts and my fingers fly, my down and dirty review will be done the same day. Oh, it’s happening, bitchez.

Siblings Nicolas and Nouschka, twins born to celebrity singer/comedian/showman extraordinaire Etienne Tremblay and a 14-year old girl he impregnated, grew up in their grandfather’s squalid apartment in Quebec. As is often the case with twins, the brother and sister are inseparable, feel each other’s feelings, think each other’s thoughts, are two humans in one. Nicolas insists he can remember his sister’s foot in his face in the womb. Neither wants to know which was born first. They’re equal and a solid unit, brought closer still by their lack of formal parenting. Their affection for each other took up the slack for an absent father and mother who deserted them.

At nineteen, they still share the same bed. No, it’s not Flowers in the Attic – though there is a bit of unconventionality – but it is beginning to look as though their lives will never move forward if one of them doesn’t take a big breath and make the break. Nouschka is the one who wakes up to reality. Signing up for night school, she starts taking classes to earn her high school diploma. Having dropped out with Nicolas at 16, she watched as her brother made a life out of petty theft, spending her free time hanging out with him and his friends. Nouschka wants more. A hand to mouth existence, and leftover celebrity from their childhood as the offspring of the iconic Etienne, aren’t solid building blocks for a happy future. Her maturity is the one difference she has with her brother.

Heather O’Neill chooses Nouschka as her narrator. It’s Nouschka who sees she’s trapped, who knows she can’t continue relying on her brother and grandfather forever. Growing up with a father who needed them only onstage, as cute props for his act – otherwise visiting only on birthdays – she doesn’t want this screwed up family dynamic to spill over, ruining the rest of her own life. Nicolas is already all but a lost cause. He makes fun of her, is hurt she’s trying to make something of herself and simply will not grow up. He’s father to a young boy who dislikes being around him, who mopes and cries until Nicolas gives in and takes him home. Nicolas’s child support payments are in arrears to the tune of $ 3,000 and growing. He has no job, no prospects and no desire to change. And why should he? He’s fed, clothed and everyone knows him from the now dusty and threadbare fame that’s wearing thin, though he doesn’t seem to care:

The Tremblays as a family were invented by the subconscious of a people prior to the first referendum (of Quebec to secede from Canada). They are a direct result of a revolutionary, surrealist, visionary zeitgeist. They are wandering around now like animals whose habitats have been destroyed.

We fall in love with these two, faults and all.They make us laugh, we feel their love and sympathize with their hurt at having been abandoned. When Nicolas locates their mother, our hearts break with theirs:

I wanted her to be proud of things that nobody but a mother could be proud of. I had wanted her to be proud of a story that I had written about a swan. I had wanted her to be thrilled when I dove off the high diving board. She should have been there to cheer when I learned my multiplication table. And I had wanted to be commended for giving the flea-ridden cat a bath all by myself. Those were the things that actually built character. They taught you that ordinary life was meaningful and made sense.

You could tell that she was a bit star-struck. We looked down on people that were star-struck. We couldn’t help it. How could we not look down on people when they were looking up at us?

Still, life is beckoning and it’s time the two moved forward. No one wants to see the split. Nouschka has to struggle, to sometimes fall, but keep her trajectory forward-moving. Nicolas hangs on as back story for a decent part of the book while Nouschka moves forward, though with these two the connection’s too strong to keep them apart indefinitely. His pull on her is strong and understandably so. He represents unconditional acceptance and love. Unfortunately, he also represents inertia.

Jealousy of Nouschka does not lie only in her budding career. Nicolas is threatened by her romantic relationships, as well. When she marries, arguably too young and for the wrong reasons, the rift between them expands. Nouschka grows more independent, acting out in ways that drive more of a wedge between them. Nicolas grows more stubborn, more self-defeating, while Nouschka’s life is difficult and, ironically, more and more lonely. It’s as though, even in their relationships with other people, it’s all really about the two of them.

There’s everything to love about this book. It’s so well paced it flies. Getting through all 416 pages in about five hours – with breaks – attests to how much I loved the characters, how smoothly the book was plotted. The more effortless the writing appears, the more heartbreak and hair-ripping it actually caused the author. The world she created is complete and rounded and all the characters are as real as the twins. Around it all is the question of Quebec’s secession from Canada but the politics are more personal than making any grand statements, save O’Neill drawing our attention to the fact Quebec has its own distinct culture. She lives there; she’s entitled. And we Americans? What do we know?

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is about love and family and the chance to get things right the second time around. It’s about imperfection being enough, sometimes, as long as there’s love. It’s also about happy endings never being guaranteed but making the best of what you can control. Life’s messy and a pain in the ass and, occasionally, wonderful.

And the book? It’s just wonderful.

Tactically, I’m moving The Girl Who Was Saturday Night to Shortlist potential. That’s POTENTIAL. It’s early yet but damn, this is one great book.

I’m pushing the Publish button. I let the review leak over to the second day by 23 minutes, mea culpa. On to the next candidate (and I’m not saying which…).

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