When author Stephanie Lacava was 12, her family moved to the Parisian suburb of Le Vésinet. She already felt like an outsider and this move simply confirmed it, guaranteeing that she would never again be simply “American” or “French” or any other single nationality, emotionally if not legally. On top of that, the move coincides with a descent into mental illness, a bone-deep depression that will haunt Lacava for the rest of her life.
Lacava was the sort of child who places great importance on objects, even before the move–tangible things she could hold in her hands and arrange on a shelf, and the intangible but nonetheless solidity of stories, mythologies that explained the world to her. As she spiraled into depression, it was those things that she was able to hold on to and that eventually enabled her to find her way out.
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris is a very unusual memoir. It’s half a history of objects, with drawings that remind me of those old French posters “Le Grand Inventaire du Vivant en Europe.” Interspersed throughout the book–in fact, about half of the book itself–is a history of objects and people she comes across. These take the form of enormous foot notes that sometimes go on for pages. Some other reviewers have found that annoying, but I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed the footnotes themselves, and the book itself is short enough that I never got lost.
And what objects catch her interest! From mummy powder and sea ivory to the history of pajamas and the medieval passion for saint’s relics, the footnotes are a fascinating look at the world we live and are a testimony to her active, curious intelligence. Meanwhile, Stephanie is trying to adjust to life in a new country, attending an American International School, learning French and traveling around Europe, all the while dealing with her depression. Her father takes her to museums and antique markets and she discovers more objects, but her life is unraveling in other areas. The second half of the book gives little vignettes of her life now, how Parisian taxi drivers react to her excellent French when she visits, or stories of catching up with the few good friends she made at the International school.
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is half a study of objects, half the story of a life, but wholly engaging. As the author herself explains, “It is my story of conquering another world, a place where in order to survive I had to seek out wonder…It took a study of objects for me to see that if we are patient and gentle in observing ourselves and others, we will find connection.” (p. 7-8)
Elizabeth can relate to not feeling any single nationality. Her children for a while thought they were part American, part French, and part Mauritanian, until she explained to them that nationality is not simply conferred by living in a place for a while. Learn more at her blog Planet Nomad.