The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (translated by Simon Pare). Broadway Books, 2015.
The Little Paris Bookshop was not the book I expected it to be. The basic synopsis is that this middle-aged French man named Jean Perdu owns a book barge – that’s right; a barge on the Seine that has been converted into a bookshop! Jean has the miraculous talent of being able to read people’s inner souls and ailments and “prescribe” the right book for whatever pains or joys they might be feeling in life. But the story doesn’t have all that much to do with that. The story really begins when Jean opens a letter from the woman who was once his lover – a married woman with whom he shared 5 sweet, clandestine years, and who was gone one morning without a goodbye. 21 years later, Jean finally decides to open the letter she left him, which is the catalyst for the rest of the plot.
If you do not want to be spoiled by what’s in the letter, stop reading now. It’s not much of a spoiler because it happens early on in the book, but I can’t write this review without revealing it.
In the letter, Jean’s lover, Manon, reveals that she left him because she was dying of cancer and wanted to spare him the pain. She also asks him to come visit her in the south of France before she passes so she can have a proper goodbye. But Jean doesn’t read the letter until 21 years after it was written, and Manon has long been dead. This is when Jean decides to cast off from the shore and take his book barge for a trip down the river to the south of France in search for healing and answers. He is accompanied on this journey by 2 cats and Max Jordan, a famous young writer fleeing the pressures of writing his 2nd best-selling novel. They meet several other interesting characters along the way and, like any good journey story, it changes them.
This book was not what I expected because it was definitely NOT set in Paris, and it was definitely NOT about books. Yes, there are some lovely literary references sprinkled in, and the setting for most of the novel is the book barge itself, but the real meaning of the story is about grief and healing. The book was originally published in German, and I did some research about the translation of its title. In German, it was published as Das Lavendelzimmer, The Lavender Room. In France it’s called La Lettre Oubliée, The Forgotten Letter. In Dutch, De Boekenapotheek aan de Seine, The Book Pharmacy on the Seine. Spain: Sabor a Provenza, Flavor of Provence. You see where I’m going with this…
It definitely reads as a book that has been translated (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Aside: book translators DO NOT get enough credit. They are astonishing, and if I were multilingual I would totally choose that as a career. So much goes into the translation of a novel, it’s insane and fascinating). The English title is very misleading; the French title seems to me the most appropriate one, and I’d be curious to hear from those of you who’ve read it which title you think is the most fitting. I’m sure there was a myriad of good reasons why they decided to call the book The Little Paris Bookshop in English, but to me it doesn’t make sense. The plot centers on Jean’s journey after reading this letter, which has very little to do with Paris or the bookshop.
Jean ends up finding his catharsis in the south of France, and the entire book is a really a chronicle of his grieving process. This is also why I think the book didn’t resonate with me as much as it would with other people; I fortunately haven’t gone through an intense grieving process yet in my life, but I’m sure people who have would find this book a lot more meaningful. I am old enough to have loved and lost and gone through my share of emotions, but the type of grief Jean experiences is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever known.
That being said, there were times when I felt the book was a bit melodramatic and really really slow. Now, I like slow reads; I have nothing against slow reads. But the characterization and the prose have to be excellent for slow reads to work well. This book, however, didn’t have the deep level of characterization it deserved for a plot like this. The prose was lovely at times and SO, SO QUOTABLE. (Just take a look at the Goodreads quotes page for this thing: it’s crazy. You could make a million Tumblr graphics with these suckers.) However, there were looong stretches of this philosophizing that just brought any drive the plot had to a screeching halt. There was simply too much of it. Paring down the stretches of quotable philosophizing would have made the read much more enjoyable to me.
Ultimately, my favorite part about the novel was the last section in which Jean is in the south of France, because it paints a very vivid picture of the small seaside towns and the beauty of the vineyards…it made me absolutely pine to visit these places. It was a fitting place for Jean to find healing, and it rounded out the novel quite nicely (I won’t reveal anything more, because there are several spoiler-y bits toward the end!).
This review is getting to be very long (I write long reviews; get at me). I will say that there is a lot about the book I haven’t talked about that many people might enjoy – mainly the chunks in the middle while they are traveling on the barge and meeting lots of quirky people. I would maybe like to revisit this book later in life once I’ve experienced more life and see if my opinions change at all. I give it a solid 3/5 stars.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.