The tiniest of tunes can stick in the mind.
While major publishers are delivering great orchestrations by their unedited über-brands – JK Rowling and John Irving clearly have not felt the lash of a red pen in years – our adventurous small presses have fallen in love with the simple melodies of literature's ukulele: the novella. It is a sweet romance that has seen Hesperus Press, Portabello Books and Pushkin Press all flirt successfully with the form. And into this cabinet of miniatures we can now place Anna Gavalda's Breaking Away, a loving haiku to the joys of having siblings.
Published by Gallic Books (it does what it says on the patisserie box), Gavalda's slim volume captures what it means for brothers and sisters when adulthood unravels the ties of youth. Garance, her sister Lola, their brother Simon and his wife Carine are driving out of Paris to a cousin's wedding in the country, a trip that is set to highlight the differing paths their lives have taken. Yet, while the sense of loss is palpable, Gavalda turns the wheel on the plot to give the family a final shot at recapturing their childhood bonds. "It was time for some sibling swashbuckling – all for one and one for ... and all that jazz"
As with Nick Hornby's fiction, Gavalda's lightness of touch belies an expansive depth of field when detailing romantic and familial relationships. After covering a middle-aged architect's emotional rebuild in last year's Consolation, she has switched gears to create a comic road-movie narrative in which the passage of time acts as a tender reminder to grab life while you can. It's like Ferris Bueller's Day Off played out in the French sticks as Garance et la bande play hooky from life's responsibilities.
Gavalda is particularly astute when detailing the differences between the various family members, and especially the fractious dynamic the two sisters have with their nag of a sister-in-law. "We were probably thinking the same thing, that we had lost our older brother," says Garance. "Why does she speak to him like that? Does she even know who she's talking to? Does she know that the man sitting next to her was the god of scale models? The ace of Meccano sets?"
Carine is as uptight as an over-wound Patek Philippe. She's on the verge of popping a sprocket at each service station loo, over every roadside cafe menu and with the slightest amendment to the laminated schedule. Her every sigh and snip is expertly delivered.
The warmth between Garance and Lola is equally well realised, rooted as it is in their disparate characters. Garance sums it up: "She likes to be 'a little bit tipsy', I prefer to drink; She doesn't like going out, I don't like going home."
And for such a blink of a book there are some fantastic visual portraits (Lola has "eyes as big as Sevres bisque saucers"). Breaking Away is a sweet little number that packs a lot of levity into its brevity and remains echoing in your thoughts for far longer than it takes to read.