Dan Rhodes's new novel opens with a determined art student, Aurélie Renard, throwing a stone in a crowded Paris neighbourhood in a bid to kick-start her next creative project. She had been planning to produce a straightforward series of line drawings – drawing is her first love – but, intimidated by hearing other students pontificate on their more conceptual ideas ("recontextualising found objects", "appropriate the now", "subvert the zeitgeist"), Aurélie randomly selects a public area by throwing a dart at a map, tosses her stone in the air during rush hour and hopes for charmed inspiration.
But instead, the stone lands her with a baby, his changing bag and zero information on how to take care of him, and what transpires is something madcap, maddening, funny and lovely, as Rhodes chivvies us along during an eventful week with Aurélie and multiple other Parisians.
These include Aurelie's best friend, Sylvie, who, in an efficient bid to find the love of her life, has a different job for every day of the week, including waitressing in a floating restaurant, giving tours of the city in a white 1963 Citroën 2CV and working the door of a drag cabaret club, though she may soon be dumping them all to study for a certificate in child care; Jean-Didier Delacroix, an arrogant arts correspondent with a haughty girlfriend to match; Le Machine, an artist who is wowing the world with a travelling show that involves him living naked on a stage for three months; and Professor Papavoine, whose off-hand comments to his art students tend to inspire all sorts of mischief as well as – sometimes – compelling art.
Rhodes relishes throwing lots of elements into the mix: Aurélie is a highly imaginative liar which leads to some extended amusing situations, not the least of which is the one surrounding the outrageously nifty baby simulator, an invention which allows women to make an educated decision about whether to have their own offspring. There are some seriously funny piss-takes of the Bruni-Sarkozys and presidential press conferences in general, and for good measure, Rhodes tosses in several characters straight out of French farce central casting, including the widow who is not a widow and the proprietor of a languishing erotic cinema. The Paris setting means there are several cases of love at first sight, and Rhodes even fits in a bang-on-trend reference to Stieg Larsson's tattooed protagonist Lisbeth Salander.
This is Life is a true mélange of talk, action, lust and performance art that moves at a fairly furious, if scatty, pace. A subplot involving a gun doesn't come together quite as nicely as other bits do, but the novel has many charms – even if you've got to tolerate a bit of lunacy in order to keep up. As one character muses, "maybe there was something to be said for a little bit of disorder after all". Especially when you've also got true love, true friendship and an inventive joie de vivre.