A bookseller never forgets that books are a very recent means of expression in the broad sweep of history, capable of changing the world and toppling tyrants. Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see it purely in terms of a story, minimum retail price and an essential balm for the soul; he saw freedom on wings of paper.
I could not agree more. Gems like the above are prevalent throughout Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little Paris Bookshop. It is in itself a story that combines the love of books, food and living life to its uninhibited fullest in a story that hasn’t made me feel this good since I read Paulo Coehlo’s beautiful book The Alchemist years ago.
The book begins at 27 Rue Montagnard, an apartment building in Paris containing an eclectic band of residents, including the main character, Monsieur Jean Perdu. M. Perdu is the owner of a book barge aptly called The Literary Apothecary, which is docked at the harbor. The barge holds books that will solve any emotional ailment; grief, rage, depression, loneliness. But M. Perdu is in need of his own remedy, as he has been living a staid, lonely life void of love or friendship. You see, Perdu lost the love of his life twenty-one years ago. Manon, a vivacious, fiery and sexy woman up and left the poor man without a word, save for the letter she had delivered to his room. Stubbornly, he refused to open the letter for two decades, and when he finally does after meeting the just-dumped Catherine, his life changes in ways he never could have imagined.
The Little Paris Bookshop (originally published as Daz Lavendelzimmer) is one of those books that takes readers through so many emotions while giving them a great story. It is essentially a love letter to books and how they make us feel. It is also a lesson in what it means to isolate yourself from life and love. What happens when a person realizes that allowing love of any kind into one’s life is, essentially, living? For M. Perdu, that realization takes him on a journey through France, with the young earmuff wearing author Maximilian “Max” Jordan, another resident of 27 Rue Montagnard, along for the ride. During their journey, the lonely men meet other lonesome hearts along the way, each of whom have their own stories of lost love, illness and grief. As Jean and Max travel further and further away from Paris, they also travel further and further away from the life that kept them from enjoying even the simplest pleasures.
While reading Ms. George’s brilliant novel, I found myself having several different reactions: shaking my head in acknowledgement, writing down the titles of books I had never read that were “prescribed” by M. Perdu, or rereading paragraphs full of insight and truth. Paragraphs such as the ones I highlighted when M. Perdu tries to convince a potential customer that she needs a book more than a man. “Surrender to the treasures of books instead of entering into pointless relationships with men, who neglect you anyway, or going on crazy diets because you’re not thin enough for one man and not stupid enough for the next.” When the customer confronts him for his strong (but correct) outburst, Perdu keeps going. “Books keep stupidity at bay. And vain hopes. And vain men. They undress you with love, strength and knowledge. It’s love from within. Make your choice: book or …” I couldn’t help but grin like a Cheshire cat at those words. And there are more like them.
While speaking to the mother of a bright little girl who is also an avid reader, M. Perdu’s conversation with the woman is one that made me say “YES!” out loud after I read it:
“’This strange child of mine wants to have read the entire thing by the time she is twenty-one. Okay, I said she could have the enclyco…encloped…oh, all these reference books, but she won’t be getting any more birthday presents. And nothing for Christmas either.’
Perdu acknowledged the seven-year old girl with a nod. The child nodded earnestly back.
‘Do you think that’s normal,’ the mother asked anxiously. ‘At her age?’
‘I think she’s brave, clever and right.’ ‘As long as she doesn’t turn out too smart for men.’
‘For the stupid ones, she will, Madame. But who wants them anyway? A stupid man is every woman’s downfall.’”
But Ms. George’s words are just as lovely when describing M. Perdu’s reentry into the world of the living, even when he is confronted with the pain of remembering his lost love. At one point during his journey, Perdu samples a wine that is named after Manon, which the author describes simply, but with elegance. “He smelled the wine; it had a cheering aroma. The Manon tasted of honey and pale fruit, of a tender sigh before sliding into sleep. A vibrant, contradictory wine, a wine brimming with love.”
The Little Paris Bookshop is a fantastic read for anyone who loves books, but more importantly, needs an extra push to get back to living and loving. Make sure to keep reading until you get to the very last page, as Ms. George has included a couple of surprises. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and will definitely be reading it again.