It’s that time of year again. Mireille Laplanche logs on to Facebook to find out the results of the annual Pig Pageant competition, awarded to the ugliest girls in the school (run by Malo, her childhood best friend turned nemesis). She can normally rely on getting first prize, but she’s surprised to see that, this year, she has ignominiously dropped to third place: a mere bronze! Who are these two girls who’ve beaten her? Mireille is fascinated. She sets out to meet her fellow Pigs, Astrid Blomvall (Year 11; gold) and Hakima Idriss (Year 8; silver), both of whom are distraught by the news and (in Mireille’s view) need to grow thicker skins. World-weary Mireille does her best to comfort them and, as she gets to know her new friends, she finds herself conceiving a plan. What if they could defang the Pig Pageant, and turn social media to their advantage instead? Funny, inspiring and heartfelt, this is a tale of the underdogs taking control of the narrative: a very modern story of determination, adventure, and sausages. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourself to meet your new heroines: the Piglettes.
Nothing much happens in the sleepy town of Bourg-en-Bresse, and fifteen-year-old Mirelle is doing her best to endure her teenage years: ‘I’m amazingly good at not taking 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’. She winds up her mother, looks down on her nice but unexciting stepfather Philippe, and dreams of getting the attention of her real biological father – her mother’s former supervisor, a half-French, half-German philosopher (‘for confidentality purposes, I shall call him here Klaus von Strudel’). Klaus has never acknowledged Mirelle. Indeed, he might not even be aware of her existence, although she finds that hard to believe, since she has written to him several times. But he has other things on his plate, like being married to France’s president (‘I will call her, to keep things simple, Barack Obamette’) and having three sons (‘who have moronic Greek-hero names, but I shall refer to them here under the friendlier pseudonyms of Huey, Dewey and Louie’). For bright, bored Mireille, Klaus von Strudel represents the antithesis of safe, suffocating Bourg-en-Bresse. If only she had a way to get his attention!
And now Mireille has designs on someone else’s attention as well. Hakima, the youngest Piglette, has a big brother, Kader (thenceforth known as ‘the Sun’), who is completely and utterly gorgeous. Some of his brilliance, though, is currently dimmed. Kader has recently been invalided out of the French army, having lost both his legs in a horrifying ambush that claimed the lives of some of his closest comrades. Now he is struggling with grief and survivor’s guilt, while Hakima and her parents long to find a way to get their bright, adventurous young man back again. It just so happens that the Élysée Palace in Paris will be holding a big garden party on 14 July. General Sassin, who commanded the mission in which Kader lost his legs, will be present, offering a chance for catharsis. Indochine, Astrid’s favourite band, will be providing entertainment with a rare concert. And of course, it being the Élysée, Mirelle’s biological dad will be present. What if each of them could fulfil her dream, and get one over on Malo along the way?
We’ve got bikes, we’ve got calves, we’ve got a garden party to crash…
Sometimes you stumble across a book that you know you’d have loved as a teenager, but which doesn’t quite spark the same enthusiasm as an adult. On the other hand, books you love as an adult might have failed to excite your younger self. It’s rare to find something that speaks with equal charm and immediacy to both your past and present selves. Piglettes, however, which I have now read twice, is one such book. It isn’t even really the plot which makes it so wonderful: if you think about it too hard, you’ll realise that it’s all completely implausible and could surely never actually happen, but that’s not the point! Books like this are like magic tricks: you just have to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, rather than scrutinising it too closely. Approached like that, Piglettes becomes a delightful, bubbly tribute to female friendship, underlaid with some surprisingly sharp observations about bullying, social media, and power as a social construct. Righting injustice; finding out who you really are; and getting to see your favourite band at the concert to end all concerts… that’s what being a teenager is about, and Beauvais captures all the madness and magic of it here.
Beauvais, a lecturer at the University of York, has translated the book from French into English herself (its original French title is Les Petites Reines and it has, predictably, won a raft of well-deserved prizes). For an author to translate her own book suggests that she has a dazzling number of strings to her bow, but also explains why Piglettes is such a joy to read. For once, there is no question about whether meaning has been lost, or whether the author really meant this word or that. The result is a delightfully fresh novel, full of cultural references that make sense to an English readership, spiced with spark, snark and a pitch-perfect teenage voice. Mireille is, without a doubt, the best friend that any geeky, awkward adolescent girl could have, and I wish I’d met her twenty years ago:
“I don’t understand why you insist on calling yourselves the Three Little Piglettes,” Mum groans. “It’s a horrible name.”
“We’ll make it beautiful, you’ll see. Or better, we’ll make it powerful.”
Auntie Mirelle’s Life Tips: take whatever insults they throw at you and knit them into a lovely big hat
The literary equivalent of a hot bubble bath with a mug of hot chocolate on the side, soundtracked by your teen self’s favourite band.