I was captivated by The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George from the very first page, when the main character, Monsieur Jean Perdu is trapped by two of his neighbours gossiping about a new neighbour in their apartment building, whose husband has left her for his mistress. The new neighbour has been left without any furniture, so the two women request a donation on her behalf from Monsieur Perdu. As he owns a bookshop he offers a book, but the women suggest that a table would be more useful.
To give a table to his new neighbour, Monsieur Perdu has to steel himself to go into a locked room inside his own apartment. He has been living in a single room with only the bare essentials for 25 years since his lover left him, and the table is in the locked room, along with a letter from his lover which he has never read. Expecting the usual “Dear John, it’s not you, it’s me,” Monsieur Perdu locked up the letter and his emotions and got on with his bookselling business, where he provides the appropriate book to customers who need therapy of some type or other.
Monsieur Perdu’s bookshop is on a floating barge on the Seine River in Paris, and his speciality is finding the right book for people’s emotional needs. He finds consoling novels for readers who are heartbroken and books about living for those who are afraid of dying, and pushes The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery on to a woman who he believes needs to learn her own worth. I found the idea of there being a perfect book for everyone’s emotional needs to be one of the most charming ideas I have ever come across, and think (hope?) this is true. The only problem is this lovely idea is that the person who matches the ideal book with the reader, Monsieur Jean Perdu, is a fictional character.
The letter from Monsieur Perdu’s lover ends up with Catherine, the woman who he gave his table to, along with a book he prescribes for crying. Catherine and Monsieur Perdu become friends and almost start a romance of their own, but desist because Catherine is still mourning the end of her marriage and Monsieur Perdu the end of his relationship from 25 years ago. Catherine returns the letter to Monsieur Perdu who finally reads it, and learns that Manon, his lover, left him because she was dying.
In grief all over again, and struggling with guilt, Monsieur Perdu decides to travel in his barge down the rivers of France to the South, partly in search of an anonymous author known only as Sanary, who has written a book which is Monsieur Perdu’s literary medicine and partly to visit Manon’s home. A wildly successful young writer from Monsieur Perdu’s building, who is desperate to escape his sudden fame and the fear of writing a second novel accompanies him on the trip. As time passes and they have adventures along the way, they both become emotionally stronger.
Part of the story is told by Manon, in the form of a diary. She was engaged to another man when she and Monsieur Perdu met, and was open with both men about her relationship with the other. Eventually she married the other man. The letter she wrote was asking Monsieur Perdu to come to her while she was dying.
I couldn’t read the first half of this book comfortably, because I kept stopping to write down books which Monsieur Perdu recommended for certain ailments, or ideas or passages that struck me as if I have lived my life to date without realising essential life lessons. Eventually I settled down and just read and enjoyed, but I might have to go back and read the first half of the book again so I can take in the story properly.
For example, Monsieur Perdu says he has three types of customers who buy books, and the first is me; people who read because books are the “only breath of fresh air in their claustrophobic daily lives.” True, for me anyway. Books are an escape, an opportunity to live as many lives as possible, to be an adventurer, an explorer, to live a seedy, criminal life, to experience romance and travel, and to do ordinary things in other people’s shoes. Saying that my daily life is claustrophobic is probably over-dramatic, but I do enjoy the opportunity to live additional lives.
One of Monsieur Perdu’s customers needed a particular book as “she is in the process of editing herself out of the story, because her husband, her career, her children or her job are consuming her own text.” I suspect most women who have a husband, children and a career will relate to this, at least a little. (I didn’t write down which book is recommended for this ailment, and now I can’t remember. When I’ve finished this weekend’s housework, I’ll check it out, if I’m not too tired….)
Paris and France as a setting for The Little Paris Bookshop were gorgeous. I liked Monsieur Perdu enormously, Manon less so. All of the characters played their roles in the book perfectly. Monsieur Perdu found the answers he had avoided questioning for so long, and I found a book, characters and truths that I loved. Highly recommended for people who are suckers for sentimentality.