In this strange and often beautiful novel in which reality and fantasy overlap, Madeleine, a young girl, reclines romantically in what appears to be a permanent state of sleep, with her family and neighbors all tiptoeing around her. Her mind, however, is active, creating a bizarre dream world in which she lives out a series of adolescent fantasies, exploring who she is, what kind of adult will she become, what her role in life may be, what makes her unique, and how her sexual fantasies might be fulfilled.
Unique characters appear in her dreams--an immensely fat woman (Mathilde, Madame Cochon) who has two pairs of wings, a girl who has a stringed body which she can play like a viol, a man who creates the sounds of the nightingale and the cuckoo with his flatulence, a "half-wit" who exposes himself to children, an opera singer dethroned by a castrato, and a photographer in a mental institution, along with Madeleine's real-life family. The "action," real and imagined, ranges from a gypsy circus, where Madeleine studies tumbling, to the home of a widow, where the strangely gifted circus performers act out tableaux vivants, and eventually to a mental hospital, before returning to Madeleine's family and home in rural France.
As in our own dreams, strange connections occur among the characters. Madeleine, at one point, becomes the Madeleine from the children's stories about a Parisian convent school, her real-life brothers and sisters appear in the mental hospital dream sequence, and she engages in a love triangle, which becomes a literary joke when the author tries to figure out how to conclude the love story of three characters. Irony takes on new meaning in a book that is itself so out-of-the-ordinary, and the humor is both broad and dark as Madeleine's dreams constantly juxtapose unlikely elements.
The "action," while intriguing on a psychological, dream-like level, sometimes leaves the reader feeling starved for connections to reality, however, and the novel is often self-conscious. Though most readers will see some parallels between action within the dreams and the fantasies of typical adolescents, many will also find it difficult to identify with the cartoonish characters on a personal level or to care much about what happens to them. Art and creativity are strong themes in what passes for the plot, and the conclusion re-emphasizes this theme. Fascinating and often beautifully poetic, the novel ultimately feels like a literary exercise, containing some universal elements of reality, but distanced from the reader. Mary Whipple