I wanted to like this book. I really, really wanted to like it. The purchase of this book was the product of a hopeful in-between moment.
I bought it at an airport, which, on its own doesn’t really sound like much. But I remember that moment. I remember floating around the airport shops – half-dancing to the music in my headphones – and grinning like an idiot. It was that brief moment in time after a remarkably pleasant vacation in which I had seen a beautiful city, met new people and done new things. It was a moment ripe with possibility, one in which it seemed possible to leave the dreariness of my previous life behind and build a new life for myself – one that was satisfying and creative and (dare I say?) happy.
It was a brief moment, but it was there. And in that moment, I saw The Little Paris Bookshop on display at the airport’s bookstore. Sure, it was full price. But it checked my boxes – quirky, charming main character with a hint of magical realism, a beautiful little bookstore (It’s in the title!!) and all the promise of a pretty new cover. And I loved the idea of a book apothecary – I do think that the right book can heal in the right situation. I’ve recommended many a book myself in this manner and I looked forward to the promise of this book.
And, I reasoned hopefully, things would very soon get better in my life, so I should worry less about the cost of the book, and consider it a small celebration (Note to the reader: things did not, in fact, get better, but that has little to do with the book).
The book was lent to my mother and then, upon its return, sat on a bookshelf for longer than I would like to admit. Finally, it took the book cropping up in book club for me to delve into it.
I will reiterate here: I wanted to like this book. And, for a while, at the beginning, I did. It was sweet and quirky and a little bit sorrowful, with beautiful descriptive passages. And then it wasn’t. Because ‘quirky’ and ‘sweet’ are only effective when they are used sparingly. When they are overused, as they are here, they swiftly become grating and saccharine.
The descriptions of the little bookshop boat and the apartment building and the people who live in and around the area are lovely and charming. But lovely descriptions only get you so far before they become droning. And the main character blathering on and on about the beauty of the countryside and his lost love and blah, blah, blah…. Well, I feel like it lands solidly on the side of droning. Descriptions that are intended to be sweet and beautiful… It just feels like eating a glob of fondant. It’s supposed to be decorative and all you really get is a mouthful of flavorless sugar. (Note: I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten fondant on its own, but I imagine that’s what it would taste like – feel free to substitute whatever oversweet substance you like in this metaphor)
There are small shades of difference between a genuine well-developed character and a manic pixie dream girl, and this book quickly becomes the latter. Speaking of girls… There aren’t any. Or at least, there are very few of them, and they don’t do much.
There is Catherine, the heartbroken divorcee who moves in Perdu’s building, and who he (suspiciously quickly) falls in love with…. And just as quickly leaves behind as he departs on his magical journey. There are the busybody old women who perpetually sit outside of the building, sticking their noses in everyone else’s business. There are assorted wives and friends and one particularly obnoxious tango partner. To be fair, it is entirely possible that the young lady herself is not obnoxious, but the manner in which Perdu describes her, even claiming to know her thoughts and understand her character to impossible depths, certainly is.
And of course, there’s Manon. The mysterious, missing love interest, whom Perdu spends the entire book irritatingly pining for at length. Who is also present in annoying (and unnecessary) journal excerpts. These vacillate between dull (Oh… who will I become when I leave my beautiful small town in Provence for the great city of Paris?) and cringe-worthy (glistening pussy – enough said).
My point here is that the women in this book are not real women. They’re foils to show the depth and romance of our pretentious and long winded Perdu.
This book, ostensibly devoted to love and to the exploration of lost love, has very little actual love or romance in it. What it does have is three guys on a boat, who stare at each other and have lengthy conversations about love. Conspicuously, none of them seem very good at love.
Side note: none of them really know how to pilot a boat and have no money to purchase food or supplies, so there’s that too.
There is Perdu, who had a love affair with a woman and refused to read her break-up letter for 20 years. There’s Max Jordan, whom I suspect has never actually had a relationship. He’s a ‘reclusive novelist’ on the run from the success of his first novel and the fangirls that have accompanied it. And there’s Salvatore (Cuneo? Not sure… his name changes so much), who has spent the last 15 years combing the river to try to find the beautiful girl with whom he had a one night stand a very long time ago. Spoiler alert: he knows exactly who/where she is. She’s some small-town mayor’s wife, happily married with two kids and “an unbelievable, gigantic triple backside.” (I thought the added bit of fat-shaming was a nice touch, personally.)
The entire journey, inspired by a sudden, manic urge on Perdu’s part, is a futile attempt to recapture the impossible. It is impossible, of course, because when he opens Manon’s letter, he discovers that it was more than just a goodbye – she had a fatal disease (cancer, I believe) and passed away about six months after she left him.
The entire journey, which is, truthfully, too little too late, is relatively uneventful and largely uninteresting. I cannot tell you how the journey ends. I am at page 229 and I’m not sure I can force myself to read any farther. The horrible and unnecessary thing with the deer disgusted me enough that I wanted to put the book down and never touch it again, as if it were diseased somehow. I did pick it up again, since I’m reading it for book club, although at this point, I’d rather not.
It strikes me as odd that the writer is a woman… Surely, a novel so overwrought, navel-gazing and male-centric ought to have been written by a man.
If you harbored hopes similar to mine (and had them similarly dashed), I humbly recommend the works of Sarah Addison Allen and Alice Hoffman. They are the queens of this sort of writing. Long may they reign. I would even go so far as to suggest The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, as a substitute. It is sad, but it is beautiful and it is certainly worthy of your time. That recommendation seems a bit odd, as Perdu recommends the Elegance of the Hedgehog to one of his lovesick customers. But I suppose this book had to at least get one thing right.