Bibliotherapy is the semi-serious prescribing of literature—novels, poems, essays, etc.—for emotional ailments. The theory is that books can cure one of ennui, sorrow over a broken relationship, feeling overlooked, and so on. Jean Perdu, the protagonist of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, makes his living prescribing books to people to cure what ails them. He’s preternaturally good at putting the right book into the right hands. The only person he can’t cure is himself.
Perdu has been pining for a woman he loved twenty-one years ago. He’s cut himself off from most of life’s pleasures, his friends and neighbors, even some of the rooms of his apartment because these things remind him of a woman he refers to with a long dash for the first few chapters of The Little Paris Bookshop. After 21 years, he can’t even say her name in his head. All this changes when a new divorcée moves into his apartment building. Perdu feels a connection to Catherine that he hasn’t felt in a long time. The connection might have amounted to nothing if Catherine hadn’t found a letter from Perdu’s lost love in the table he lent her. The letter upends everything Perdu believed about his relationship with Manon.
The letter sends Perdu—with a struggling novelist as a tagalong—down France’s rivers and canals on his bookshop barge to make peace with himself and Manon’s legacy. It turns out Manon didn’t leave him after all; she was dying and couldn’t bear to put Perdu through her death.
At first, The Little Paris Bookshop struck me as very twee. Most of the cast were wildly eccentric and dressed oddly. George’s exposition appeared in my head like the set of The Grand Budapest Hotel—very bright and very quirkily Old Europe. When Perdu and Max (the novelist) light out for the territory (southern France), the novel turned picaresque and melancholy. By the halfway point, however, The Little Paris Bookshop had become a novel about mourning, healing, and love. On the surface, I should have hated this book because it’s just so damned uplifting.
I immediately compared this book to Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Zevin’s book is more plausable, if only because George’s characters seem to live a life of heightened emotion. Perhaps it’s their overexposure to the written word, but the characters are so good at describing their emotions and experiences in elegant metaphors and concise but evocative language. I only ever met one man who regularly spoke in paragraphs in real life and he was an oddball who wore Panama hats and white linen suits. The Little Paris Bookshop is littered with Characters, not just characters. In spite of this, the book grew on me. I’m a reader with a deep connection to some of the books I’ve read. (They can’t all be winners.) I understand Perdu and his clients. I wish I had his gift for recommending (prescribing) books.
After some doubts, I think The Little Paris Bookshop is going on the little bookshelf of my soul. I will recommend it to others who love reading, who understand that a book is more than paper and ink. Those who read it will not only have a marvelous experience. There is a bonus at the end of the book: Perdu’s literary first aid kit.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 June 2015.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers who are curious about bibliotherapy and readers who worry that soulmates do not exist.