Sunday, September 27, 2015

"The Little Paris Bookshop," by Nina George: Sweet, Strange, or Both?

Charming. Wistful. Philosophical. A wee bit fey. A wee bit self-helpish. And occasionally a wee bit dull. These are some of the words and phrases that went through my mind as I was was reading “The Little Paris Bookshop” (Crown, 2014), a novel by Nina George, translated from the German by Simon Pare (2015). Of course with that title, I had to read this novel. And who wouldn’t fall in love with the main character, Jean Perdu? He is a bookseller, a book-lover, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, loyal, and yes, charming in a self-deprecating way. He has a bookstore on a barge in Paris, and he always knows which book to “prescribe” for customers and friends. He has a secret, though, that has dominated his life for more than 20 years: He had a grand affair with the love of his life, Manon, who happened to be married to a very understanding husband, Luc; Manon got fatally sick but didn’t tell him, wrote him a letter to ask him to visit her before she died, which he never opened, thinking she was ending their relationship. He pined for Manon for 20 years, but didn’t open the letter for those 20 years. When he finally did, the letter precipitated an upset in his life: he unanchored the barge for the first time and went off for an ill-planned trip, accompanied by a couple of other unusual (also charming, each in his own way…note the recurrence of the word “charming”) men with secrets. The bulk of the story is the adventures they had, in the course of their individual but intertwined quests. Somehow even the little problems they ran up against all magically get solved. (I am not giving away too much with this plot summary, as these events all happened very early in the novel, and the rest of the novel is the adventures and their conclusions.) In some ways this is a romance novel, but of a very literary type. Isn’t it romantic that Jean Perdu (notice the symbolism of his name) stayed true to Manon for those 20 years without seeing her, and never loved or even had a relationship with another woman during that time? At the same time, isn’t this highly unrealistic and even a bit weird (excuse my unliterary choice of words….)? And I wonder: would it have been less romantic and more weird if it had taken place anywhere but in France, with its lovingly described meandering rivers, canals, and scenery, and the charming (yes, again, charming) characters the men met along the way? Both the scenery, and the constant interweaving of references to books and their power, were certainly appealing. In any case, the story is both lovely and strange, both compelling and a little off-putting, a little over the top. But yes, very romantic and sweet. And -- have I said? -- charming.
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