The Little Paris Bookshop is a book I expected to love. It began wonderfully and I was very excited. It is a book for book lovers. However, despite the magical premise and all the literary promise, it quite literally floats off course. I think the problem with The Little Paris Bookshop is that author Nina George never sat down and decided exactly what kind of book she wanted to write.
The book is at its best when it is a love letter to books, their authors and the readers who read them. It is mediocre as a picaresque road (river) trip story and it is downright awful as a romance. Adding to its difficulty in engaging my emotions is that so much of it seems written in hope of being optioned for an emotionally manipulative romance film in the tradition of The Notebook.
Considering what it does best, the book succeeds in conveying the magic of books to take us out of ourselves, to bring us calm, peace, joy and scare us out of our wits. Jean Perdu, our hero, is a Parisian bookseller whose store is a converted barge anchored on the Seine. He calls his bookstore The Literary Apothecary and is renowned for his preternatural ability to prescribe the perfect book for what ails you. Somehow he is able to size up the life and character of his customers and find them the book that restores their confidence after a failed marriage, helps them sleep at night and generally cure what ails you.
I love how Perdu and George talk about books and since this is where the book begins, I was falling in love with the book within the first few pages and anticipating a book to become a highlight for the year. Sadly, it all went awry.
We all too soon come to the romance of the story. We know from the beginning that Perdu lost his great love some twenty years ago, a love so great he will not say her name. She is this pause, this emptiness, this vacancy in his thoughts, sentences and his home. A new tenant named Catherine has moved into this apartment building, cruelly abandoned with nothing by her cheating husband, he agrees to give her a table from a room he has not opened since his heart was broken long ago. She finds a letter in the table and insists he read it after the two of them have a pleasant, flirtatious and emotionally awakening dinner.
So, it turns out this man whose skill at listening, whose capacity for human understanding makes him a gifted healer has had a letter from his lost love that he refused to read for twenty years. Right then, the story began to fall apart for me. If his skill is empathy and listening, why would he refuse to listen to the one person he loved more than any other?With this incredible contradiction – Nina George betrayed Jean Perdu. She chose to put a plot device ahead of his character, creating a contradiction that the story never resolved. And what was in this letter? Only the most trite and terrible thing possible, she was dying, she wanted him to come to her deathbed and why was she dying? She was pregnant and made the choice to forego treatment in order to save her child, a story so common it shows up in every hospital drama.
That brings us to the picaresque section because guilt and a need to expiate his sins sets Perdu to unmooring his barge and setting off to his lost love’s home via the many rivers of France. His neighbor from his apartment building jumps on this boat as it leaves, begging to be allowed to ride along. Max is a famous novelist who has lost his muse and hopes that Perdu and his books can cure him, or at the least, the river will take him away from the fans who stalk him.
The river adventures of Perdu and Max are the picaresque section and like most picaresques, it is a series of disjointed adventures as they meet the townspeople of the various villages they visit. The villages are stereotyped and the adventures are silly. The add their own Sancho Panza and later a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Eventually they reach the end of the river, more or less, and go their separate ways. Perdu and Max off to the home of Manon, that long lost love who is yet another idealized woman who only seems to exist relative to Perdu and his story. What agency she has is as a plot device. She also writes terrible diary entries that are rank melodrama.
All of this is in search of bring Perdu back to life, awakening him, letting him find himself. Perdu means lost and Nina George does not trust us to know that for ourselves and points it out more than once, revealing that for an author who loves books, she sure does not trust her readers.
Meanwhile, Perdu is sending Catherine postcards in this one-sided romance where he sends her messages without her able to respond. Just like all the women in this book, she has no real agency. She is a plot point. She is one-dimensional and like a one-dimensional character, her reaction to having the man who flirts with her one night and run off down the river the next morning to disappear for months with no word other than random postcards, she dutifully falls in love with Perdu despite his ridiculous behavior.
And that is the last problem with this book? What is romantic about a man who refuses to read a letter from the woman who left him for more than twenty years? He’s a hard-hearted man who once he feels betrayed, once a woman fails him, she is dead to him. Of course, he feels awful and guilty when she is literally dead, but what romance is there in someone so hard, stubborn and cruel? What is romantic about a man who runs off on a boat trip to get rid of his guilt and leaves this Catharine who has awakened his heart without a word, sending her random postcards but never giving her a chance to communicate? If that is romance, I hate romance.
That is why this book is false and fails to engage me emotionally. Perdu is on the one hand this marvelous reader, this empathetic kind and wonderful man and on the other and absolute narcissistic, selfish, stubborn and cruel man incapable of considering any pain other than his own. And of course, these contradictions are too start, they are not credible. Perdu has been betrayed by the author who at once wrote a character we could all love and then decided to write him into a horrible tragic romance–one where only he matters, where Manon, his lost love, and Catherine, his new love, are plot devices to move him about.
I alternately loved and hated this book, but overall, I cannot recommend it despite the promising beginning and the occasional quotable moments. It dragged on forever at times, its melodrama made me roll my eyes. The main character’s flaw are completely incompatible with his virtues, making him not a believable character and ruining the story.