When I was nine years old, my mother cleaned her closet, culling her wardrobe in the process. Mama is a tiny woman and weighed barely a hundred pounds at the time. Me, well, I’m not so tiny. My father is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, a big-boned farmer with a thick, strong body. I’m somewhere in between. I’m sure they were probably still too big, especially through the chest, but I selected several of my mother’s old shirts to add to my own closet. My favorite was a navy blue cotton number with three-quarter sleeves, a Peter Pan collar, and a row of shiny blue buttons up the front.
I wore it to school soon after. I remember almost nothing at all about that day. It was neither warm nor cool, although I do remember it was sunny. It must have been after lunch because my nearly fatal embarrassment took place as we filed out the front door, across the large expanse of cement in front of the school building and down the sidewalk to the playground in back. I heard a laugh, then another, and what I can only describe as a guffaw. I realized almost immediately the laughing was directed at me. I felt air across my chest, and to my infinite horror, when I looked down I saw skin. Bare skin. My blouse was losing buttons.
We’ve all felt exposed, whether literally or figuratively, and such exposure in childhood is devastating in the moment. It’s humiliating and often lasting. Paule Constant’s novel, Private Property, describes moments such as these over and over in the life of little Tiffany Murano. From the second of her arrival at the Catholic girls’ school in southwestern France, nine-year-old Tiffany feels miserable and out of place. She misses her parents, French expatriates still living in Africa. The nuns are distant and dismissive; the other girls seem foreign and are cruel, teasing Tiffany, ignoring her, shutting her out of their conversations, their play, and their world. Having spent her life until now in Africa renders Tiffany an outsider.
Although Tiffany internalizes the rhythms and routines of the school, she never really sheds her alien status. She moves through her days detached and observant, longing for companionship but misunderstanding the social order so completely that every effort she makes disintegrates into a mortifying blunder. In one painful episode, she goes through the motions of befriending Cathy even though she is told outright she’ll be dropped like a stone the second a popular girl looks Cathy’s way. When the inevitable happens, Tiffany is more upset about her undone, unkempt hair than the departure of her false friend. Tiffany simply watches as the years pass her by. Soon she is thirteen.
Tiffany’s only solace lies with her grandparents, the reserved grandfather and her charming, devoted, but ailing grandmother. She spends her weekends with them, first at a city boarding house, then later on traveling to the Private Property of the title. The big house sits among orchards of apple, plum and hazelnut trees, looking over the picturesque village below, flanked by its own farm complete with livestock, and backed by an imposing range of mountains. Every joyful experience, every peaceful moment, and the only sense of belonging left to her are embodied in the beloved grandmother, the grandfather, and the Property.
Constant’s prose, even in translation, flows gracefully. She is at her lyrical best during the last third of the novel, moving between the school and the Property, between Tiffany’s resignation and her happiness, using only the quality and essence of her language to communicate the acute, turbulent changes. When Tiffany’s grandmother dies after a long, unspecified illness, the girl’s world is shattered. Constant renders her mourning and utter confusion in language so raw, so palpable, it makes the heart ache. Tiffany disintegrates back at school, lying awake at night, her head spinning her lesson’s facts into a kind of emotional armor. We are witness to the imminent fracture, helplessly watch her hurtling toward disgrace.
After finishing Private Property, my mind wandered over my own school years, marking embarrassments, remembering slights, rifling bittersweet memories. I relived a bit of that evening after the buttons fell from my shirt. I picked the buttons up, put them in my pocket, took them home. But with the dark shirt and buttons in hand, I went to the trash can instead of asking my mother to sew them back onto the shirt. I didn’t want to be reminded. Constant draws Tiffany in clear, stark relief, creating a character who throws shadows so large they cover you up and remind you for days.