THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP: A NOVEL (2015)
Crown, 400 pages, 978-0553418774
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This is a book for lovers of all kinds, especially book lovers. Where better to set a book about a bookseller than along the banks of the Seine, whose Left Bank is lined with book stalls? The Seine is also home to a number of barges tethered to the shore and connected to the utilities grid. Author Nina George takes us to a special place: a riverside barge that is home to Jean Perdu, who also operates a bookshop and dispensary of non-prescription pharmaceutical supplies. Perdu—French for lost—fancies himself a “literary apothecary” who can take the measure of a person, discern what ails the soul, and prescribe a book that will cure it–and not necessarily a classic either. Perdu loves books so much that he doesn’t discriminate between a medieval medical text, a pulp romance, a Harry Potter novel, or a tome that is fodder for the literary canon. But can Perdu find his own way and heal himself?
Later in the book Perdu will encounter a lovesick Italian chef named Cuneo, whose life is summed by the advice he dispenses: “Eat well, sleep well, make good friends, and have good sex.” None of that is happening for Perdu, who eats out tins, suffers from insomnia, is a loner, and hasn’t had sex in over 20 years though he’s only middle-aged. Jean’s curmudgeonly ways are shaken when he’s prevailed upon to donate a small table from the apartment he seldom uses to a furniture-poor new tenant: the equally lonely and easy-on-the-eyes Catherine. She finds an unopened letter in the table drawer that reveals the depths of Jean’s despair. I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll just say that it deals with the mystery of why the love of his life left him. One of the many joys of George’s novel is how literature and life collide. Her name is Manon, and if you know anything at all about French literature and film you will recognize Manon as the name of the avenging protagonist in Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette saga, a work considered by many to embody the very soul of France.
George's Manon is not an avenger, but she is certainly a woman of secrets, which George parsimoniously doles out. Call Manon Jean's muse. Or is she more of a Siren? That's precisely what Jean—note the first name—must figure out as he embarks upon an improbable voyage to Manon's native Provence. His spartan voyage to find himself parallels Huckleberry Finn lighting out for the Territory, with Jim replaced by a tag-along famous author, Max Jordan, whose affected quirkiness is his self-remedy for writer's block and disgust with celebrity. Along the way, the two pick up Cuneo–another lost soul. Will this be a healing journey, or the voyage of the damned? Will Manon's secrets be cooling waters (Manon des Sources) for Jean's parched soul, or a dry well? The Little Paris Bookshop begins as a quirky book about eccentricity and evolves into a story about love and grieving. Romance or tragedy?
Read mes amis. As you read, you can enhance your pleasure by keeping a good literary reference work by your side You will detect references and homage to scores of writers: Pagnol, E.M. Forster, Douglas Adams, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Catharine Millet, Muriel Barbery, Robert Musil, Anais Nin, and lots of others that were unfamiliar to me, including numerous German authors whose work hasn't been translated. George's novel has been called a work of "magical realism," though in my view such a label rests too narrowly upon Jean Perdu's uncanny literary apothecary talents. The book is certainly 'magical' in the spell it weaves upon readers, but I found it less a work of unexplained phenomena than one that probes the human heart with such surgical precision that we come to understand how ordinary people can be flung by love, longing, and circumstance into the extraordinary and sublime. It is, simply, beautifully written–the sort of book in which the reader vicariously experiences the tastes, smells, heartaches and hopes of its characters. In short, it's a triumph–truly one of the year's best. For emotional impact, it gets my vote for one of the best I've read this century. Rob Weir
Postscript: Nina George is quite an interesting person in her own right: a German national who dropped out school and has worked as a caterer, journalist, crime writer, novelist, and non-fiction writer. She has written numerous books under her own name, plus several pseudonyms, including Anne West, the latter used for books on eroticism and sexuality. The Little Paris Bookshop is said to be semi-autobiographical.