Anna Gavalda’s Billie is truly a wonderful story. Basically a story about two misfits who find one another, it is Gavalda’s voice which makes this the enjoyable read that it is.
The novel begins with both Billie and Franck at the bottom of a gorge, after falling during a hiking trip in a French national park. Franck is seemingly hurt badly and slips into unconsciousness. Billie on the other hand has only minor injuries and as she worries about Franck’s condition as well as their predicament, she begins to tell the story of their lives (seemingly aloud) to a star in the night sky that she fixes on. It is this approach that makes the narrative so spectacular. Billie “riffs” on their story, her story, how they met and what led to the situation they find themselves in.
Billie (named after the Michael Jackson song Billie Jean by her parents) and her best friend Franck meet in middle school (interestingly, the Jacques Prevert Middle School). When she first notices him, she intuitively knows that she will be close to him, although at first, the two of them keep their distance. Franck keeps to himself, is quiet and bright, often menaced by those around him for his sexuality. The two become friends in French class and when the two of them are tasked to perform a scene from one of French writer Alfred de Musset’s short stories for the class, this is when their friendship truly begins to blossom.
The two are from very similar backgrounds: Billie’s parents are alcoholic and abusive; Franck’s father is perpetually unemployed and flirting with Christian extremism while his mother is zonked out on antidepressants most of the time. While Billie does everything in her power to get as far away from her family as possible (including moving in with a string of low class boyfriends), Franck is more afraid to declare his independence.
At some point the two are separated - with Franck going to a different school. Even with this distance, Franck keeps in touch, constantly sending her postcards, always letting Billie know that he was there thinking about her. While Franck is studying law (at the instance of his father) Billie is living a wild life - drinking, drugging, jumping from man to man (each one of them less than desirable), even going so far as to live in a trailer behind one of her boyfriend’s parents’ home, eating the family’s left overs (her boyfriend’s parents didn’t think she was “good enough” for their son and wouldn’t allow her in their house) so she would not have to deal with her own parents. Eventually Billie winds up with a real bastard of a man who one day tells her a story about how he and his friends took “that faggot” they knew from school and drove him out to the woods and abandoned him there covered in scent that attracts bears. Billie, knowing that he was referring to Franck, does something completely unexpected and this is the first clue that perhaps Billie isn’t exactly the “reliable narrator”. More on that in a bit.
So they are reunited and Billie insists that the two of them move in together in Paris and begin to live their lives. She convinces him to follow his own desires (to design jewelry) rather than study law just because he didn’t want to disappoint his father, further convincing him that his father would never except him for who he was, especially with his extreme Christian-xenophobic views. In an interesting switch to the third person, these young adult years to their middle years are revealed, bringing the story up to the present, where each of them become mildly successful at their chosen careers and more or less getting their lives in order - all the while being at one another’s side through it all. Then they decide to go on a hiking trip, along with others, and it is dealing with one family in particular - a crewcut wearing man with a wife and young son who manages to trigger all the horrible memories in Billie’s own life - where Billie once again shows her darker side; and this incident directly leads to the predicament they now find themselves in at the bottom of the gorge.
It is Billie’s “riffing” as she tells the story - often going off on tangents, joking, stream of consciousness digressions, most of which seem to be a cover for her highly sensitive and emotional states at times - which can give the reader a sense that perhaps Billie, although telling the story, isn’t quite the reliable narrator. It mostly focuses on herself, her feelings, her observations, and even though she does tell Franck’s story, it seems more from a distance, which is strange considering how close these two actually are. Franck’s dialogue comes in spurts, giving clues to his personality but Billie’s is up front and center, in your face. You know who she is, whether or not there is some ducking and weaving going on as to her deepest feelings, which a lot of the time she goes through great pains to conceal.
The situation they are in is resolved by the end of the novel but I won’t reveal what happens. Let’s just say that it makes sense in a lot of ways and it is a testament of love, friendship, companionship, and the strong bond that two people can have after knowing one another for a life time. The novel is a celebration of that bond and throughout the narrative you feel it, experience it, and can’t help but be moved by it. If anyone has someone that close to them in their life (which I do, which is probably why this novel spoke to me as much as it did), this will be a relationship you can relate to: with all it’s ups and downs, highs and lows, dramas, intimacies and intricacies and it is handled in a beautiful and highly whimsical way. It is the story of the power of love, friendship and loyalty, something seemingly missing in the world these days.