There’s a lot to like in The Little Paris Bookshop, a novel by Nina George all about Jean Perdu, a 50 year old man who lives in Paris and works aboard a literary apothecary, a boat crammed with books which he sells to, and only to, the customers he feels needs them. Perdu can listen to a person, diagnose their ills, and prescribe just the right remedy of books with which to cure them.
Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books.
They look after people.
What a cute premise! I love books steeped in bookishness, like Matilda, or Fangirl, or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I was expecting The Little Paris Bookshop to be along these lines: a romantic, sentimental celebration of bookishness, words, writing, reading, love, and life. Sounded right up my alley — what’s better than books, after all?
And it was all of those things. Kind of. Sort of.
This book had something of a tonal dissonance for me. On the one hand, you have the premise: Jean Perdu lives in a puttering little apartment complex in Paris, where he owns three sets of the same outfit, works everyday on his book barge, and tries not to come into physical contact with other people. Perdu is a man still hurting, pushing himself through one day after the next, trying not to think of the lost love of his life.
Over the course of twenty-one summers, Monsieur Perdu had become as adept at avoiding thinking of — as he was at stepping around open manholes.
When a recently divorced woman in the complex finds herself completely without furniture or any material goods, Perdu brings over some books to help her heal, as well as a table — an old table he had stored in a boarded-up room of his apartment. Opening this room, fixing up this table, and finding a long unopened envelope in the drawer brings the life Perdu has been avoiding back into focus. The letter was from a love lost — Manon, a married woman who passed away twenty-some years ago, after she and Jean had a five year long affair. Her letter, which he locked away in anger, asked him to come visit her in her final days. Realizing the opportunity he squandered, Perdu decides to set sail in his book barge to visit the town, Manon’s grave, her widowed husband — whatever he needs to get some closure at last.
That, I like. That is a sweet, sentimental book about life, and grief, the question of when is it okay to move on, and the healing properties of a perfectly timed read. That’s a book full of evocative descriptions of food, music, dance, wine, books, and life. That’s a fun, fragrant, fascinating read.
That was not the only component of this book.
I’m not even sure how to begin. So I’ll just go in: THIS BOOK WAS CRAZY, EXPLICITLY SEXUAL. There are so many sex scenes, so many vulgar words, so many descriptions that just just did not jive with a sweet little book about a bookseller on a boat puttering down the river to gain a sense of closure over his lost love. I’m sure there’s an audience for this book that would love this kind of content — buuuuuut, I’m not quite there.
It wasn’t just the sexuality of the book that bothered me, though. It was the casual sexism. Every woman in this book appears as either a plot device or a sexual object. Manon’s entire drama revolved around the fact that she was just so ~lustful~ and so ~full of life~ that she couldn’t bring herself to choose between two men. An author that Perdu meets along the way says she wrote her brilliant novel in the hopes it would “bring me my man.” They come across a naked woman painting in her yard who almost immediately has sex with Perdu’s traveling companion, Max Jordan. (Who, by the way, is a bestselling author plagued by the pressure of being suddenly rich and successful. Not the most relatable problem to identify with.) One woman is rescued from falling into the river and laid out naked in the back of the barge. (Why? Why would these three grown men not loan her clothes?) And another lady dances with Perdu, escapes a violent fight scene with him, kisses him, then promptly exits stage left — and never is she given a name!
The amount of casual sexism and objectivity of the women in this novel was pretty shocking for a book so clearly set in present day. (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are mentioned, for example.) I felt the whole story was encumbered by this overhanging male gaze — this was not the romantic bookish read I was signing up for!
(There was also a very sudden, intense, weird scene where an animal falls into the river and drowns — lots of thrashing, screaming, and the men on the book barge can do nothing to help it. The animal dies, its corpse floats along the water — and never does this gratuitously traumatic scene come back again. It didn’t affect the plot, it didn’t drive the narrative forward, it barely affected the characters for more than a page and a half. It just happened, for no reason, and it made me really, really upset.)
My other big problem was that I feel very strongly, as a writer, that, no matter what kind of book you’re writing, coincidence shouldn’t drive the plot. And this book was tied together with SO MANY COINCIDENCES! They randomly come along someone by the side of the road that randomly ends up being so-and-so … This person who falls into the river right as their boat passes by happens to be such-and-such person they’ve been looking for … Coincidence, more than character, drove the plot along.
(Another aside: for a book about three men, readers and writers all of them, on a book barge crammed with thousands of books, this story didn’t have a lot of reading in it. I don’t think Perdu picked up and read a single book during his trip down the river. Disappointing!)
So, The Little Paris Bookshop definitely had some problems for me. The characters and the writing were a little too twee and precious, and while I understood the book was trying to convey this romantic Parisian atmosphere — books! delicious food! tango! so many women wandering around free with their sexuality! — after a while, it smacked sexist and sour. It bothered me that every woman they came across was immediately evaluated by her physical attributes and only contributed sexual things to the story. (An important kiss, several pages of sex scenes, love, love, so much true love! Apparently everyone in Paris just wanders around reading books and having sex with anyone who stops by.)
But, I do want to say, there was a lot to like in this book, and if you don’t have the same aversion to “twee” as I do, you might actually get a lot out of this!! Some of the writing is just beautiful, and the author does evoke a heady, romantic, sentimental atmosphere. There are some lovely descriptions of food (and, if you’re into that, some lovely and frequent descriptions of sex…) The overall theme is an appealing, important one, about dealing with grief — not pushing it away and trying to forget those loved and lost, but embracing that you loved at all.
Death doesn’t matter. We will always remain what we were to one another.
Had that message not been cluttered by some of the novel’s more problematic aspects, I would’ve been far more enamored with Monsieur Perdu and his literary apothecary. As it is, I feel like I need Perdu to prescribe me a palette cleanser.
Similar books I’d recommend:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society — another romantic, lovely, sentimental book about books and how they affect the lives of their readers.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog — another book a bit too precious for its own good, but which evokes a similar sensation of reading a Wes Anderson movie.
The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You — A real life literary apothecary!
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
welp, there goes my first official review here on this blog! I wish I hadn’t gotten so angry with the book itself, but I wanted to keep my review honest! I’d say this is a solid 3.5 stars — the writing is lovely enough and the problematic aspects (mostly) subjective enough that I can see plenty of people enjoying The Little Paris Bookshop. It had a very Wes Andersen movie, John Green novel, just this side of pretentious but still endearing feel to it. I just couldn’t get over the dismissive, sexual treatment of all the female characters — not to mention the SUDDEN, POINTLESS DEATH OF AN ANIMAL.
How do you guys review books you weren’t so keen on? Do you try to scrounge through your grumpy feelings to salvage some good notes and compliments, or do you go full Ranting Raptorsaurus and let it have it?? It’s a hard line to tiptoe!