There are two things I have to do whenever I’m near Leavenworth, Washington. I must eat at South, arguably the best Mexican restaurant in the state, and I must visit A Book for All Seasons. So even if the temperature hadn’t topped 100 F at our campsite overlooking the Wenatchee River this summer, sending us into town in search of air conditioning, I probably would have found myself browsing the warren of rooms in Leavenworth’s brilliantly curated independent bookstore.
Once there, it was inevitable that I would pick up the translation of Nina George’s novel, The Little Paris Bookshop. A book about the magic of books, where eccentric characters travel through lands far from my own home – this literary apothecary carries my catnip.
The author’s love of France can be felt on every page. I really felt myself to be walking down the tree-lined boulevards of suburban Paris, smelled the hot wind blowing over fragrant fields in the south, felt the glare of the coastal sun on the water. I craved cheese and baguettes even when the characters weren’t eating.
Likewise, the atmosphere in the floating bookshop was palpable and I longed to sit in its torn overstuffed chair, book in hand, and watch as tourists and Parisians browsed the shelves looking for the book to cure whatever ailed them. When one of them says, “I breathe better with books,” they are speaking for the author and reader as well. Protagonist Perdu’s theory that some books were written for certain people – or even one person – is easy to buy into, because of course we’ve all read the book that felt like a personal gift. Unfortunately, the love of books is not consistent on every page as the love of France was.
George’s thesis is that books are medicine; they are not the cure, and true healing must take place outside their pages in the real world. The first half of the story is loaded with bookish delights, but as the characters progress on their journeys, the books give way to a back half that reads more like a self-help narrative on processing grief. I missed the books, but I’ve never lost anyone who took a part of me with them. Readers who are more familiar with the kind of grief George describes might appreciate the progression more than I did.
Despite clear feminist leanings, the book is also filled with pronouncements of the “women are like this; men are like that” sort. These statements come off sounding very French, but I personally have always found such generalizations to be absolute bullshit. The male characters making them, like many real-life French men, have very little resemblance to the standards of masculinity in the American West where I grew up, which only serves to enhance my risk of an eye-rolling injury.
There is a theme throughout of people – especially women – being too hard on themselves and learning to let go of the desperation to earn others’ love by changing who they are in order to make room for loving themselves as they are. It’s an important message for those who need to hear it. But that’s never been one of my issues.
There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even medicines – sorry, books – that were written for one person only.
Oh, God. One person? A single person? After all those years of work?
Of course – if it saves that person’s life!
The Little Paris Bookshop is not the novel written just for me. But I found enough to love in the book as it is that I finished its almost 400 pages in one day. That includes the prescriptions listed at the back, which identify all of the books referenced, along with the ailments they treat and possible side effects.
The Little Paris Bookshop – A Novel
By Nina George
Translated by Simon Pare