How to Behave in a Crowd is a novel about a family with a set of precocious, “exceptional”, excelling siblings, ranging in age from around 10 to mid-20s. The Mazal family and their attributes is very reminiscent of the Glass family, of Salinger lore — a group of siblings that are just so smart and specialized in their studies, but floundering in a world that requires more skill sets than pure intellect. Everyone’s a little too smart, everyone’s a little too annoyed with the rest of society, everyone is a little too much of a self imposed shut in because they think their intellect is too “alienating.” While this could put off a lot of readers, I still found How to Behave in a Crowd entertaining and I silently laughed to myself several times with sentences that perfectly set me up to be caught off guard.
All of the children are prodigies in academia or musical performance, except for the youngest and the narrator Isidore/Dory, who seems to have more emotional and social ability than the others. While his siblings often discount Isidore’s statements, it also seems like they wish for his social adeptness in the same way that Isidore wants to be as academically excellent as each of his siblings.
The dialogue about life and other people is what really makes this novel shine. Two of the Mazal siblings are in the midst of completing PhD programs and I found their strings of consciousness quite amusing, since I’m partially through my own PhD studies at the moment. In the same way that you’ll have a favorite Glass if you read Salinger’s collection, you’ll have a favorite in the Mazal family too. I think my favorite Mazal is Aurore, which isn’t too surprising given that my favorite Glass is Franny.
At times I wondered if How to Behave in a Crowd may have been better as a short story because most of the pages seem to be dazzling examples of the author waving her pretty pen and witty commentary without actually moving the plot anywhere. The novel is kind of like a great conversation you’re really engaged in while it’s happening, but you can’t remember any of the specific details the next day, but just how you felt while having it. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, I simply mean that a lot of the writing seemed superfluous and unnecessary for the story at large. I still enjoyed the paths it took me along anyway.
Some of my favorite quotes were:
“I have an opinion on everyone who seems to have a good time being a teenager.” – Aurore (p. 152)
“She was good at turning everything you said into yet another example of how complicated she was.” (p. 208) Isidore on Denise.
“One only cried if one expected something from the world and was disappointed.” (p. 83)
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Penguin via First to Read. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin or First to Read.