Review: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

He was wearing a white dress shirt that was unbuttoned. You could see that he had a tattoo of Jesus on his chest. There wasn’t much scarier than a tattoo of Jesus. It meant that you were spiritually inclined. And if you were spiritually inclined around here, it probably wasn’t Sunday school that got you that way. Rather, it was a combination of hard drugs and deep injustice to yourself. It was the last resort.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night centers around two young French Canadians, Nicolas and Nouschka Tremblay, eking out their lives as disgraced (perhaps not so much disgraced as forgotten) former child stars in 90’s Montreal. The province of Quebec, in the imagination of many Canadians further west than them, is up to its nose in snooty, semi-depressed alcoholics who insist on acting as if they inhabit a different country and drain the entire nation’s finances to boot.

Despite its backdrop and its Quebec-born author, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night does not try to challenge any stereotypes about Quebec and, in fact, seems to validate some of them. Then again, what O’Neill has depicted here isn’t your typical tourist brochure Montreal; this is the Montreal of a particular sect, the proud and the lost and the disillusioned, people like Nicolas and Nouschka Tremblay.

Nicolas and Nouschka are twins who share everything. They make frequent reference to the fact that they’ve been together from their very first moments alive, and have never seen a reason to change this. With everything they have in common, perhaps the most striking difference is that Nouschka has dreams of doing something, oh, different with her life, and Nicolas, on the other hand, in his fatalistic, Quebecois way, “knew that nothing was ever going to change.”

Eventually, the book becomes highly repetitive, which helps to emphasize one of Nouschka’s greatest challenges: the struggle to break away from her old life (in particular, her codependency on Nicolas) and become an adult instead of the child star she has always known. She attempts this through several methods: signing up for night school, landing a better job, marrying her very unstable boyfriend, moving out of the family home, getting pregnant. But she always ends up in the same place she tries so hard to leave, that is, wherever Nicolas happens to be. (You get the feeling pretty quick that just about everybody in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is stuck in a situation they don’t want to be in, and yet at the same time can’t imagine leaving.)

Unfortunately, at a certain point the repetition becomes less poetic and more resemblant of O’Neill attempting to hammer the themes of the story into one’s skull. The Tremblays’ endless attempts to grow up, followed by their failures, are charming and at times shocking, but after 300 pages the routine gets old. Like the fate of any child star past his/her prime, there comes a point when Nicolas and Nouschka’s antics no longer arouse any interest.

Still, in the end, it’s bittersweet to see the book, and with it Nouschka’s story, come to a close. By the end of the book, she is moving on, albeit slowly, getting somewhere, ready to contribute to the world—unlike her brother, who winds up in the same jail their father was imprisoned in years ago after robbing a bank. Nobody likes a static character. That’s what Nicolas is, truthfully. He not only doesn’t change, he adamantly refuses to.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night offers a touching look into a girl’s journey to leave her childhood behind and form her own identity, distinct from her brother’s. We leave her contemplating her own decision to stay or to go, mirrored by the 1995 Quebec independence referendum happening at the same time. If she could give me a say, I would vote Oui.

Rating: 4.5/5 ★