In some of the world’s best novels, revelation is called forth by domestic details.
There’s Proust’s madeleine that conjures a spiral of overwhelming memory from a tea biscuit. There are many examples in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who’s capable, in "Love in the Time of Cholera", of contriving love sickness out of a nut: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” And readers of Milan Kundera – both his new "Festival of Insignificance", and his earlier work – will appreciate the pleasures of wandering the old cities of Europe to discover inner truths through the sensuality of the physical world.
Some of these pleasures are also in store for readers of The Little Paris Bookshop, a novel by Nina George.
The story begins with an acutely lovesick Paris bookseller, who owns a barge full of books that sits on the Seine as a “literary apothecary.” Our bookseller is not ordinary: Monsieur Perdu can prescribe books that salve the afflictions of the soul. The twist is that our Perdu is himself suffering from a 21-year heartache. We find him in his Paris apartment opening a door to a ghostly room that was a favorite haunt of his lover, and carrying a letter that he has long left unopened. The letter’s findings nearly undo him, but instead of wasting away he sails away … in his literary barge, and we’re off on our oh-so-very-French adventure.
It’s a journey that takes Perdu, and the reader, through rural France, where we encounter its many picturesque villages and characters, on course from heart sickness to a calmer destination, and destiny, of acceptance and hopeful love. The settings are ideal for a summer-romance read: winding old village roads lined with cafes and storytellers, young women painting in gardens, stone walls framing orchards, vineyard tables full of wine and fruit, and lots of philosophical conversation that elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Like the landscapes of our magical realists, the outer world becomes a canvas for our emotional lives. It’s a world of good food, vineyards, gardens, terraces, and open relationships: all so very French. And, it’s a world constructed from an architecture of desire. Aromas, textures, tastes, and visions merge with the inner lives of our characters.
Perdu asks, “Can eating heal you? With every bite of food steeped in the herbs and oils of Provence he seemed to absorb a little more of the land that lay ahead.… Already he could taste the wild banks of the Loire, covered in forests and vineyards.”
And as in our magical realists, there is no small talk here. Every detail, every encounter, is an opportunity for philosophical revelation. The universe is at our bidding, and our souls transcend physical boundaries. “Did you know we’re all children of the stars?” asks Perdu’s lover, Manon. “When the stars imploded billions of years ago, iron and silver, gold and carbon rained down. And the iron from that stardust is in us today … and maybe we recognize each other by its light.”
Not only do Nina George’s characters transcend and merge with the physical world, they also operate above the constraints of time and money. Like characters in an Eric Rohmer film, or a Kundera novel, no one seems to have anywhere particular to be. No one seems to need to earn a living. People are made of the stuff of stars, and a lifetime can be constricted to a second.
It calls to mind another magical realist, Salman Rushdie and his Saleem Sinai, whose birth in "Midnight’s Children" sets off a chain of momentous events: Absurdly, his father breaks his toe, and the childbirth stops time, with its “saluting clocks” so that he is “mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” Perdu, for whom it takes 21 years to open a letter, also complains, “I’ve grown old in a single night.”
Meanwhile, hours are spent wandering the street for a fresh baguette, or a coffee, or a glass of wine, and conversation that immediately tackles life, death, love, and the history of the universe, delivered in narrative-halting platitudes.
“[W]omen can love so much more intelligently than men,” is one platitude, delivered to Perdu by his father. And: “The advantage of dying is that you stop being afraid of it” is another, delivered by his lover. There are also the four rules to a good life, from the heartsick "Neapolitcan" Cuneo: Eat well, sleep well, make good friends, and have good sex. Quite possibly in that order.
What all this adds up to, unfortunately, is not a classic anywhere near the standards of the European writers being called upon here for comparison. Magical realism, while not particularly realistic, evokes an original vision through inspired, unexpected language. Kundera weaves complex philosophical insights into his plotless narratives and musings.
Here, the author is evoking a world that’s pleasant enough for a summer’s day read. But the narrative is constructed through cliches and contrivances. The language is too often pretentious and fussy: Two words are used where one would do as well. Cliches are abundant: Diners are “packed in like sardines,” beachgoers “stroll,” and in one triumvirate of triteness, marble is “cool,” crickets “chirped,” and wind “moaned,” all in one setting.
But for many enthusiastic summer readers, the novel might be rescued not only by the escapism of the story – Who can resist floating on a barge through France surrounded by books, wine, love, and great conversation? – but by the heart and soul in the effort.
Ultimately, Nina George’s creation is not only picturesque, it’s a journey to find a life well-lived and -loved. And for this, readers will be grateful. The best platitude delivered in the novel is the most unexpected one, on life: It’s never easy, Perdu’s lover, Manon, writes, “and there are a thousands ways to live it.” This story makes you want to live life all those thousand ways, taking enough food, wine, books, and friends along for the journey.