Lola Lafon: A Girl in Little Pieces

In 1984, a fake foundation abused teenage girls while dangling the prospect of careers as dancers. In Reeling, recently published in the United Sates, Lola Lafon follows the life of Cléo from the age of thirteen through fifty, from irreversible wounds to her speaking out in the wake of #MeToo.

This was a time of heady, sweet-smelling perfumes, shiny spandex tights, and major televised performances. A time when little girls dreamed of becoming backup singers or dancers for tendy artists whose names have since been forgotten. Cléo, 13, the daughter of a middle-class couple from the Paris suburbs, dreams of being a dancer. At the end of one of her modern jazz lessons, she meets Cathy, a woman who entices her with her style, her scent of Opium by Saint Laurent, and the future she seems to promise.

After several meetings, Cléo is invited to a lunch during which she is assessed by the Galatea Foundation, an organization that promises teenagers scholarships to study abroad. She is taken into a separate room where she finds herself alone with a man who puts his fingers inside her while asking if she is frigid. Shocked and unable to understand what really happened, Cléo leaves with a little money in her pocket and tells no one, despite the disgust, nausea, and night terrors. Out of love for Cathy, she even helps her torturers to recruit other victims, without truly knowing what she is doing.

Reeling opens with the image of Cléo as an adult, a dancer for cabarets and television shows, working in a world of illusion where the glitter and the lights hide the sweat and the pain. Constructed like a puzzle, the novel offers fragments of her life as a little girl, then as a woman looking for an impossible perfection, whose body is covered with bruises caused by hours of training, and whose career slowly disappears with the rise of reality television. Crafting a constellation of characters – Yonasz, her middle school friend, Betty, another young dancer abused by a man thirty years her senior, Lara, her roommate and lover, and Claude, a former dresser – Lola Lafon sketches the discreet outline of an elusive woman chained to a secret that has torn her apart.

The author of The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, a novel based on the life of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and Mercy, Mary, Patty, a fictional account of the kidnapping of American heiress Patricia Hearst, Lola Lafon uses her sixth novel to explore the mechanisms of control while shining a light on the inner workings of a system that made the exploitation of bodies possible, sometimes with the involuntary complicity of those around them. This was until the times began to change following #MeToo, allowing a new generation to speak out. “What will happen to those who are unsure? Those who don’t pull through, or only with difficulty, without glory? We end up celebrating the exact same values as this government that we boo: strength, power, conquering, winning.” Lola Lafon writes for all those who have stayed in the shadows, all those whose voices cannot be heard, shaking off the contemporary mythology of powerful women.


Reeling by Lola Lafon, translated from French by Hildegarde Serle, Europa Editions, 2022. 192 pages, 17 dollars.

Article published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.