Off the beaten path best describes this story. But then, I’m no stranger to the characterization myself.
I consider The Republic of Trees written by former Observer pop culture correspondent, Sam Taylor, to be the bastard, red headed step-child offspring of The Blue Lagoon and the Lord of the Flies. Published by Faber & Faber in the UK in 2005, it is about four British ex pat adolescents living in France who decide to run away together to form their own utopian society.
Louis and Michael are brothers with a tragic past. With both parents dead, the boys end up living with their unmarried aunt in the south of France. Louis, the elder of the two, has an interest in the French Revolution, while Michael is the dreamer, and, incidentally, the narrator of the story. The boys live next to a well-to-do family with a daughter close to the boys’ age. Isobel is the girl-next-door but in name only. She likes both brothers equally well, but is especially attracted to Louis. Alex is the boys’ other friend who has more brawn than brains.
While age is not mentioned, it is obvious that the protagonists are on the cusp of their sexual awakening. The story is punctuated with snippets of Michael’s teenage angst as he struggles to come to terms with not only his own sexual stirrings, but also with his jealousy as he comes to realize that Isobel likes Louis more than she does him. Meanwhile, Isobel engages in subtle behaviors to egg on the brothers to vie for her affections. The full force of the love-triangle does not come into focus until after the four run away to the woods.
Determined to have an adventure before they must accept responsibility and return to school in the Fall, the bored teens speak of creating their own civilization. But for the most part, it is all just talk. Then one day they decide to escape the ennui and frustation to live on their own terms.
Once on their own, Louis becomes the intellectual leader, dictating the terms of their society. Alex volunteers to provide the meat and fish they will need to live, and Isobel, being the only female, passively accepts her assigned role as cook. Michael is the sole citizen of the new republic. The four spend their time idling away the moments sunning themselves, swimming, gathering kindling and other materials for a makeshift shelter, and, otherwise benignly re-enacting portions of 18th Century Genevan philosopher Rousseau’s The Social Contract as an after-dinner activity. Life is fairly uneventful until another young female happens upon the group.
While Joy is not as attractive as Isobel, and suffers under Isobel’s yoke consequently, she makes up for lack of looks on a baser level. Without her to spur them on to a more substantive interpretation of Rousseau’s writing, the group would have probably become quite bored both with themselves as well as their society. Indeed, Joy brings a decidedly Gothic element to the plot.
I rather enjoyed The Republic of Trees because I found it to be a breath of fresh air from the usual politically correct, environmentally-conscious, feel good-ism, do-gooder mentality that seems to be becoming a focal point in dystopian society stories in the Young Adult genre. Having said that, as long as you accept that your favorite characters won’t always sail into the sunset with a happy ending, you will like Trees as much as I did.
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