Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Little Paris Bookshop

Crown: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Crown: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Crown: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Crown: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George, trans. by Simon Pare

Nina George takes readers on a winding river cruise from Paris south through the French countryside in her enchanting The Little Paris Bookshop, a novel that deals with the nature of grief and the power of friendship, love and truth.

The narrative centers on Monsieur Jean Perdu, who owns a bookstore called the Literary Apothecary--actually a floating barge "the length of three truck trailers" that houses 8,000 books, moored on the River Seine. Fifty-year-old Perdu is meticulous, intuitive, melancholy--a passionate bibliophile who believes that booksellers don't just look after books, they look after people. He's proud of his ability to prescribe the perfect book to remedy "countless, undefined afflictions of the soul" for every reader who crosses his path--customers to whom he sells books on the barge, as well as his apartment neighbors at 27 Rue Montagnard. For more than 20 years, Perdu has worked hard, but has kept to himself socially, suffering from prolonged sorrow incurred when the great love of his life broke his heart.

Things take a turn when two new residents move into Rue Montagnard. Max Jordan is a young author whose debut novel has made him famous. He is hailed as "the new voice of rebellious youth." Like a rock star, Max is chronically on the run from gushing fans, namely women who "read the book to find out why men are so cruel to them." Max, plagued with writers' block, seeks the wisdom of Perdu, who prescribes him a book called Southern Lights, an obscure, unconventional story that deals with the humanity of various kinds of love. The book is Perdu's favorite, "the only balm that could ease [his] pain--a gentle, cold stream over the scorched earth of his soul." For more than two decades, Perdu has treasured the story and lingered over its beautiful passages. He longs to find and thank the author, Sanary, whose mysterious pseudonym is taken from the name of a southern French town known to be a place of refuge for exiled writers.

The other new resident of Rue Montagnard is Madame Catherine, who moves into the flat across the hall from Perdu. The tenants of the building rally to help this newly cast-off wife, "cold-heartedly ejected from her own life," who has nothing of her own to set up her new apartment. When Perdu is asked to contribute something, he wants to give her a book. But the ladies request something more practical: "A table, perhaps."

In order to fulfill their request, Perdu decides to dismantle a bookcase that's been concealing the second room in his apartment, a space closed off for more 20 years. Here is where all of Perdu's love, dreams and memories have been sealed up, along with a few scant furnishings--reminders of Manon, a woman he refers to initially only as a blank line in the text of the narrative, as even the mention of her name is too painful for Perdu. It's "a dark spot amid his feelings."

Perdu sorts through the room and delivers a table to Madame Catherine's apartment. What ensues is an instant attraction, a "communion of souls" and a sudden, unexpected intimacy, whereby the two find themselves easily sharing their feelings about their love of books, along with stories about the ghosts of their broken, wounded hearts.

When Catherine discovers that Perdu's table has a drawer painted shut and finds a letter inside, Perdu's head and heart spiral into an emotional tailspin. He recognizes the letter--Manon sent it before she vanished from his life. Perdu, in his angry despair over their break-up, threw the letter in the drawer, where it remained, unopened, for 21 years and a day.

When he finally musters the courage to open the letter, he is stunned to learn that the circumstances of Manon's departure from his life were not as he'd originally believed. In an effort to run away from painful truths, Perdu impulsively takes refuge in the Literary Apothecary, soon hauling anchor and setting sail--but not before Max, who's being pursued by paparazzi, jumps aboard the moving barge.

Together, the two men chart a course toward Avignon. Perdu longs to find out the truth about Manon and is guided by wisdom from his favorite book and author, Sanary, who said, "You have to travel south by water to find answers to your dreams... you find yourself again there, but only if you get lost on the way--completely lost. Through love. Through longing. Through fear... the soul sometimes needs to cry to be happy."

Perdu and Max navigate through dense channels, canals and marinas. The two men--frequently mistaken for father and son--are without telephones, credit cards and much cash. This strengthens their bond as they pass the time by sharing life stories. Perdu's advice and mentoring of Max in his stalled writing career actually helps Perdu to begin to reconcile his own life, especially his feelings for Manon and the love they shared. From port to port, funds run low for food and fuel, so Max uses his "rock star" status to help meet their needs. Perdu, on the other hand, starts to sell off his stock of books, continuing to recommend titles to everyone they meet. This includes a Brigadier of the French Waterway Authority, German tourists, lockkeepers, an old and exiled American author, a family entrenched in the back roads of the French countryside, a woman fished out of the Seille River in Burgundy, even a lovesick, middle-aged Neapolitan barman and passionate cook who joins Max and Perdu on their journey southward toward Sanary.

George is a lyrical writer whose beautiful, sensory language and imagery enhance this adventurous, moving narrative. Interspersed throughout are updates Perdu writes to Catherine back in Paris, along with travel diaries penned by Manon, which fill in a romantic back story. George also includes recipes and a clever compendium, a list of books from "Jean Perdu's Literary Pharmacy."

In the end, the voyage propels Perdu to finally reconnect with himself--the person he was, is and who he will become in the future. The journey shows that he is not alone in his grief and suffering; each person who crosses his path has his or her own story filled with burdens, illusions and sadness. And while it may appear that every meeting is coincidental, as the intricacies of Perdu's story unravel, the randomness begins to seem more like providence, as though we all have a part to play in other fates. In the end, human connections ultimately enlighten Perdu and offer him healing and redemption. As Perdu leaves the routine of his life for the fluidity of the river--and opens himself again to new possibilities--he is shown that interactions with other people in other places can be just as transformative as the power of books to change peoples' lives, souls and destinies. --Kathleen Gerard

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780553418774, June 23, 2015

Crown: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Nina George: The Power of Books to Heal

Nina George writes contemporary novels centered on people "who undertake a physical journey that leads to self-discovery" because, she admits, she does the very same thing in her own life. "The quests, the odysseys, the 'joyful wanderings' (exploration, seeking the way, straying from the beaten path) are what constitutes a life." While she is of German descent, France is "in her blood" due to influences from her mother's side of the family. She believes "the French soul lay closer to (her) heart than German sensibilities." George lives in the Finistére region of Brittany, "at the end of the world.... Although," she claims, "some say it is where the world begins." The Little Paris Bookshop was first published in German as "Das Lavendelzimmer" in 2013; it has sold over 500,000 copies and been translated into more than 27 languages. Crown will publish the novel in the U.S. in June. (Interview translated by Heidi Holzer.)

The Little Paris Bookshop largely takes place on French waterways. Have you ever taken a river cruise through France?

My father died the same year I'd planned to take the tour, and I also had a titanium implant in my neck. So I talked to "river people" and borrowed their river diaries. I spoke with tourists and locals. In 2014 (after the book had been on the bestseller list for a year), my husband, Jo, and I finally drove along the route. We ate and drank in Montargis and Cepoy, checked out houseboats for sale and drove across the canal bridge in Briare.

Sanary-sur-mer becomes the cornerstone of the novel. Is there any special reason why you chose to make this locale central to the plot of the story?

Oh, yes! In 2012, I explored Provence and drove around the region, 1,500 kilometers [930 miles], until the land answered my questions. I went to Sanary-sur-mer because it was the home of German women writers in exile. In a way, I felt as though I were in exile as well. My father had died, my body--my neck--was injured. It felt as though I'd lost my way: my life, my sense of inner childhood, my security. Sanary was a place of healing for me. I believe that everyone has a secret place where they are made "whole" again, no matter what it was that broke them in the first place.

Would you say a sense of brokenness inspired the novel?

Life. Death. Books. Dreams.... It began with the success of Die Mondspielerin/The Moon Musician, after which people expected me to write another novel. I wanted to explore the great themes of guilt, heartbreak and beginning one's "'actual" life all over again. My father died in 2011, and that was the caesura in my life, in everything that I am. I've been writing for 23 years. I'm a professional writer. Yet after my father's much too sudden death, I felt something break inside--my deep grief brought me back to myself. And it also redefined what I want to and am able to write about.

So I wrote about life, about survival after the death of a loved one, about the power of books that can heal everything--absolutely everything. And about living in one's own dreams. I felt free to do whatever I wanted, because I'd already gone through the worst possible thing in life. Since then, rules have no longer applied to me. For survivors, nothing is forbidden.

You pay your father a beautiful tribute in the dedication to this novel.

My father was a loving man. I never met any human being like him. He was kind and strong. He didn't have a great deal of education--no one did in postwar Germany--and yet he was wise and read up on everything. We'd been discussing my work since the early days of my career--I landed my first job, with a newspaper, at the age of 19. By 22, I'd written the first of what are now 26 books--and he read everything I wrote. We debated, he offered praise. He always wanted to know how I came up with things. No one else has ever been so intensely interested in what I think. He never wanted me to be simply "pretty" or "a good girl." His desire was for me to think, to develop internal endurance. He encouraged me in sports, challenged me to think. He helped develop my political sensibility and demanded that I respect people, cultures and religions. I was never to assume that my truth is the only one that matters. In a sense, the way he brought me up laid the groundwork for how I'm able to see the world.

Why has this novel resonated so deeply with readers?

Because it's a story about death and about how much we can be shaped by loss, by missing a person. Grieving, or admitting that the loss of a loved one has derailed us, was unfashionable, forbidden for much of the past. Also, there is a dedicated community of people in the world who will always be able to connect with each other across all languages, boundaries and religions. It is the "Readers' Club." People who read a lot, starting at a very young age, are people who were raised by books. They have learned about forms of love and hate, kindness, respect and ideas that are different from their own. They experience the world as something infinitely larger than before. They enjoy the indescribable feeling of having found their true selves.

We readers are book people, and Jean Perdu [the protagonist] is one of us. We are all traveling on an invisible literary riverboat, one that carries us down the stream of life. It shapes, holds and comforts us.

At the end of the novel, you include a compendium of books/titles to cure whatever ails a reader. If you were to include The Little Paris Bookshop on that list, what ailment would this novel serve to cure/alleviate?

Catharsis and healing. Das Lavendelzimmer/The Little Paris Bookshop is both a kind of cleansing and a literary form of solace. It penetrates areas of the soul where old and grand emotions are hidden. Grief, melancholy, regret that we are not 16 anymore, compassion, the desire to be loved by our parents, finding the place where we feel whole, understanding the fears in our dreams. The book cleanses these wounds--and above all, it provides solace. In Germany, people often give books to friends who are starting over: a new life, a new job, a new era.

Jean Perdu has a favorite book that changed his life. Do you have a book that changed yours?

My library holds 3,500 books, and I've read around 4,200 in my life. Every book has had an effect on me, but I'll mention only three:

Ein Fisch ohne Fahrrad (A Fish Without a Bicycle) by Elizabeth Dunkel: At a time when I didn't know whether I wanted to love or be loved, or which one would be harder to bear.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: At a time when I felt I didn't trust myself to be the person I am.

The diaries of Anais Nin: To help me understand that I have a sexual identity.

Will there be a 27th book?

I'm working on a novel that is about being afraid that one is not good enough and what awaits us in the space between life and death. It also deals with the question of whether there is even such a thing as the "right" life. --Kathleen Gerard

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