In Houzelle’s first novel, Tita is a seven-year-old girl growing up in the south of France in the 1950s whose life seems to be defined by obstacles: the many foods that disgust her, the school that fails to challenge her, and parents who struggle to understand her. Tita is precocious and clever, but in some ways painfully inept. She is thoughtful but frail—obsessed with rules and rituals, and determined to understand the nuances. Through Houzelle’s sharp, straightforward prose (which captures Tita’s perspective), the story of how Tita grows takes center stage. She learns the alternatives to those things that have held her back or held her down. She challenges social strictures that she feels are meaningless. She battles her mother to get what she wants, and when sometimes that turns out to be the wrong decision, she acknowledges it. At the novel’s end, Tita is still a little girl, but her brilliance, potential, and unusual way of looking at the world will have won readers over.


Reviewed by Judith Starkston

Here is an extract of the review: 

Set in a small town in the South of France in the 1950s, Tita relays its charm in its voice and in the world it depicts.

The voice is that of seven-year-old Tita. She is both sage and naïve. She can tell you the correct rule for whether to put an “e” on tout in every grammatical situation, but she does not recognize the tensions and estrangements that haunt her parents’ marriage. Even when she learns that she was born before her parents married, she does not understand the implications of this nugget except that she can use it to embarrass her mother into answering more of her questions. She knows it’s a key piece of information, but she can’t fit it into a larger context.

Young narrators are a tremendous challenge to write. The dangers of saccharine tone or planting far too much knowledge into a young mind can trip up any writer. Some readers may accuse Houzelle of the latter failing because she builds a precociously smart child, but that would miss the subtlety of what Houzelle is doing. Tita knows a great deal, much of it entirely bizarre for a primary school child.

But on closer look, because there is so much of importance that Tita doesn’t grasp, we can believe that she’s happened haphazardly upon what she does know through her voracious and age-inappropriate reading. In addition, the gaps in her understanding, which she usually doesn’t recognize exist, provide an ironic humor throughout—skillfully done humor and not overplayed.

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Reviewed by Olga Zilberbourg

Here is an extract:

Tita’s favorite pastime, besides reading, is making herself an inconspicuous listener in the rooms where adults gossip and talk business. This way, she learns that she was an illegitimate child, born before her parents’ marriage; that to correct the family’s finances, her father is considering taking a teaching post in Mexico. As things stand, her father won’t be able to provide the dowry for his three daughters, a heavy burden of responsibility for a man born in the 19th Century.

From her opening lines, “I’d like to be a nun. Or a saint,” it’s clear that seven-year old Tita has a unique approach to life. She seems to have been born a vegan: all animal-based foods disgust her. She’s willing to eat a bite of cheese if in exchange she might be allowed to go to church early in the morning, enjoying a quarter hour of solitude; but the very smell of veal, popular in local cuisine, is an offense to her senses. Spiritually curious, Tita enjoys attending early mass or participating in the May Day procession, but she strongly rebels against all perceived illogic of the church and her Catholic school. Tita debates, for instance, with her Catholic teacher, mademoiselle Pelican, on the matter of Pope’s infallibility. “[Pelican] had to admit it in the end: if Pius XII himself told me I’d made a spelling mistake and I had the Robert, my favorite dictionary, on my side, Robert would win.” And, yes, the dictionary plays a very important role in Tita’s life: it’s a great source of comfort whenever she encounters an unfamiliar concept or situation in the books she reads or in conversations between adults.

The novel’s short chapters, each introducing its own internal conflict and resolution, and yet firmly linked together into a larger whole, are loosely structured around Tita’s story of origins and her quest for education, her way of breaking from the confines of mademoiselle Pelican’s classroom and into the egalitarian world of the public school. She doesn’t need or want her father’s dowry to secure her future; what she craves is a kind of education that would challenge her intellectual abilities. Neither her Catholic school, nor the Catholic boarding school that’s looming in her future, would be able to provide that environment for her. And the state run school that could set her on the proper path seems off-limits: none of the children of the upper stratum of the local bourgeoisie have ever set foot in a public school.                                    You’ll find more on:


Reviewed by  Lizzie Harwood

Here is an extract:

Houzelle’s debut novel, Tita, is the tale of a precocious child, the eponymous star of her narrative, living out the year that she is seven (“the age of reason” we are told) in a small Catholic town in the south of France. But there’s nothing reasonable or typically French about Tita: she despises food (when have we read a book about France that doesn’t exalt the food?), wants to be a nun, but aspires to producing several children fathered by an assortment of nationalities: “Tuareg, Nuer, Trobriander, Khoikhoi, Samoan, Kalahari, Iroquois, Dogon… I copy the names into my notebook, and look them up in the atlas.” Tita is so off the radar of ‘expected French heroine’ that stepping into her thoughts is like belly-flopping into compulsory school pool sessions. The nun teacher sets our teeth on edge and Mother’s so removed from her children they call her “Stepmother/Mother-in-Law” (“Belle-mère”) without so much as a reaction.

But once we get comfortable inside Tita’s brain, the world that opens up to us is very different to any French-setting I’ve encountered. Cugnac, her insular, Occitan-speaking town in the south is on the cusp of big change. This is ‘50s Catholic-ruled town, far from glitzy Paris and well-heeled Lyon. A decade from now, the student-worker riots in ’68 across France will cause a seismic shift, but here in Tita’s Cugnac the fundamentals are already quivering: Father’s failing wine business sees him selling off chunks of the estate (including the tennis courts, hélas!), the older half-siblings can’t complete high school due to the cost or expulsions or to save face, Mother’s ultimatum-style hints to Father that she wants a crocodile handbag for her birthday go unheard. But it’s all so funny when seen through a whip-smart kid like Tita’s eyes: “I don’t want to live off the sweat of anybody. Not that my parents sweat much, now that they no longer play tennis.”

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An extract:

Tita is a bright, focussed little girl who is wonderfully endearing and Houzelle is terrific at capturing the ambience of rural France in the 1950s, and the nature of a young girl who is avidly engaging with the world around her. The book has a real old fashioned feel to it, it is beautifully written, it is funny, astute and warm, and the locale is very much an enveloping character in the book – you can almost smell the garrigue. A delightful read! Enjoy.

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