The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel, by Nina George (Author), Steve West (Reader), Emma Bering (Reader), Cassandra Campbell (Reader), translated by Simon Pare
When we meet Jean Perdu, we find a very unhappy, introverted bookseller who manages to solve the problems of others but fails to find solutions for his own. He neither talks much to his neighbors nor has many friends. He operates a barge on the Seine, from which he sells books to customers that he first instinctively analyzes so that he can then suggest a book that is appropriate for them. He has the gift of insight into their innermost hopes and dreams, fears and challenges. He will not sell a book to a customer if he feels it will not help or satisfy the reader in some way. He is called a book pharmacist, and he operates a literary apothecary.
More than twenty years ago, Perdu’s sweetheart suddenly left him. Like his name which means lost, he has been lost ever since. One day, when tenants in his building ask him to help out a neighbor whose husband abandoned her and left her with nothing but her heartbreak, he reluctantly agrees. He gruffly suggests that he give her a book, but they insist on a more practical gift, a table instead. He agrees and enters a room hidden behind bookcases in his apartment, a room he has not entered in a long time, to retrieve a table for her. He leaves it outside her door. He places a vase on it, and pretty much speaking through the peephole in her door, he tells her to use it for red flowers. He hears her muffled sobs; he knows her heart is broken. He returns to the secret room, the room that represents a time when his own heart was broken and is still not mended, and he gets her a chair and then promises her a book, as well, to help her recover. The two neighbors, Jean and Katherine, begin to help each other survive their own particular grief as their friendship buds and flowers. When she tells him she found an unopened letter, addressed to him, in a drawer of the table, he becomes angry and refuses to take it. Finally, he does read the letter that has been trapped in the drawer for more than twenty years; he discovers that he had made a grave mistake, and his heart breaks anew.
The warmth they share somewhat frees Jean Perdu from himself and his burdensome thoughts; he decides to release the book barge and begins to travel down the river Seine to try and make amends for his past foolishness. As he prepares to leave, another neighbor, a 21 year old reluctantly successful author, Max Jordan, jumps aboard without invitation, losing his belongings in the process. Perdu is not happy he is there, at first, but soon they, too, begin to comfort each other and cure each other’s ills. Shortly thereafter, another man joins them. He too is searching for something. When they reveal their secrets to each other, they are greeted with surprise, anger, and then, forgiveness and compassion. The three continue their travels, and in the end, as their group grows larger, they all find ways to resolve their problems and begin to realize that everyone needs to love and be loved.
It is a tender story in which all the characters seem to be searching to find out who they really are, what they really want, how to stop their sadness and their pain and how to find the joy of living. They all, in a somewhat contrived fashion, do seem to find their own solutions to their problems by the book’s end. Even Jean’s father and mother, separated from each other, seem to reconcile some of their differences and find their way back to each other, even if only occasionally
The narrators did a superb job with accents and characterization. I really found that I could picture the characters in my mind as each one spoke. The mood was set by the tone and expression of the readers’ voices which were alternately sad or happy, dreamy or alert, soft or loud as the scene required. Not one ever over emoted.
This book is translated beautifully, with the exception of some words pertaining to sexual content that seemed entirely out of place and low brow for a book of this quality. The prose is poetic and poignant, moving the reader with real emotion and encouraging empathic feelings toward the fully developed characters. Highly emotional scenes are interspersed with charming humor that relieves the tension perfectly.
Jean Perdu, like his name was lost, but later found; in the same way that he encouraged his readers to find themselves, he discovered the person he should be, or rather, the person he had the power to be, the person hiding inside him all along. The reader knows that words have power and this book proves it. Jean Perdu was the bookseller of every reader’s dreams. He not only knew his books, but he understood his readers. As Katherine, his neighbor, eventually coaxed the inner meaning of the stone into her sculptures, as Jordan created children’s books that encouraged children to grow into all they could be, and as Jean discovered the inner needs of his customers, coupled with his developing friendship with Katherine, he began to realize that his lost love, Manon, had also helped him to make the journey into his own happy future with someone else.