The Little Paris Bookshop has everything I like in a book. It has characters you can root for, an undeniably bookish theme with Jean Perdu’s wonderful book apothecary on a barge moored in the Seine, and enough depth and emotional wisdom to offset the potential twee-ness of the story. I realise that the English translation is not the same experience as reading the book in its native language (French, of course), but the translated language is beautiful. There are some extremely philosophical quotable paragraphs and sentences, some that have become amongst my favourite literary quotes.
The story begins with Jean Perdu living in a quirky apartment building in Paris, going about his daily routine, which mostly consists of a regimented adherence to certain ways of doing things, to avoid any depth of feeling and emotional reaction. In contrast, his floating bookshop is his ‘literary apothecary’, where he prescribes books for all kinds of ailments of the heart, mind, and soul for his customers. He is astute at diagnosing what his customers need, often with hilarious accuracy.
‘Reading – an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that made one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.’
Jean’s world is turned upside-down when a new neighbour, Catherine, moves into the apartment building. He becomes emotionally unmoored for the first time since the unfortunate events that led to his stagnation, and sets off on his barge across France to discover what happened to the woman he once loved. Along the way, he rediscovers his joy for life, learns more about himself and his companions, and he eventually comes to the realisation that he needs to heal and learn to love again.
‘Fear transforms your body like an inept sculptor does a perfect block of stone…It’s just that you’re chipped away at from within, and no one sees how many splinters and layers have been taken off you. You become ever thinner and more brittle inside, until even the slightest emotion bowls you over. One hug, and you think you’re going to shatter and be lost.’
Having been to France many times as a child (and a handful as an adult), the novel was evocative and nostalgic, and a small window into life (however idyllic) in France. I could see that it may not be to everyone’s taste – reviewers on Goodreads have accused it of being twee, overly-sentimental and the character development as shallow – but this was not my experience. I feel like reading a novel is a completely subjective experience and what one reader enjoys, another will not. Yet this novel made me feel joyful and hopeful, and I loved all the characters. It reminded me a little of the joy and hope I felt when reading The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, another book featuring a bookshop and a jaded main character.
What made me fall in love even more deeply with this novel was the idea of books being able to cure ailments, to help people grow, to console, and to be trusted companions. There is already a real-life book (and website) – The Novel Cure – aiming to do just that, prescribe books for all kinds of troubles and feelings, worries and needs. Yet the idea of a physical bookshop where someone like Jean Perdu can see right away what sort of book you might need – well, I wish such a place existed! It would be a place of pilgrimage, just as Shakespeare and Company is (the real-life place of pilgrimage for bibliophiles in Paris). Jean’s diagnoses are complex and he always has an idea of which book would suit. It would be wonderful to have book-prescriptions just for whatever ails you, personalised for that particular stage of your life.
‘He had altered his method of matching books to readers. He often asked, “How would you like to feel when you go to sleep?” Most of his customers wanted to feel light and safe.
He asked others to tell him about their favourite things. Cooks loved their knives. Estate agents loved the jangle made by a bunch of keys. Dentists loved the flicker of fear in their patients’ eyes; Perdu had guessed as much.
Most often he asked, “How should the book taste? Of ice cream? Spicy, meaty? Or like a chilled rosé?” Food and books were closely related. He discovered this in Sanary, and it earned him the nickname “the book epicure”.’
Mostly though, this is a book for people who love books and reading. It’s the kind of book you read in the spring, perhaps even in Paris – or failing that, your favourite café. If you’re feeling cynical, in a bit of a rut, or simply want something magical and hopeful to read, The Little Paris Bookshop may just be the book for you.
‘Perdu had discovered another thing above the rivers – stars that breathed. One day they shone brightly, the next they were pale, then bright again. And this had nothing to do with the haze or with his reading glasses, but with the fact that he no longer simply stared at his own feet.
It looked as though they were breathing to some never-ending slow, deep rhythm. They breathed and watched as the world came and went. Some stars had seen the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals; they had seen the pyramids rise and Columbus discover America.’