What a delightful read. I purchased this book at an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas (BookPeople). Nothing about it screams Austin, nor does it have anything to do with Texas or the American south. Far from it, in fact. It is a story of a Frenchman who lives in Paris and owns a floating bookstore named the Literary Apothecary. He prescribes books for the ailments of life, similar to how a doctor or pharmacist prescribes medicine for illness. At one point in the story, the bookseller reflects “that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”
Jean Perdu is the Literary Apothecary. The great irony is that while he cures strangers on a regular basis, he is incapable of curing himself. His lover left him in the middle of the night some decades ago and he never recovered. He walled off an entire room in his Parisian apartment because he could not bear to face the memories contained inside. When he decides to open the door one day and remove the barrier, he almost breaks completely. His long-lost lover, Manon, had left him a sealed letter when she disappeared; a letter Perdu refused to open for all of those years because he suspected he knew exactly what the contents contained. The terrible truths in the letter set Perdu on a spontaneous course up the Seine and then down south toward Provence aboard his previously stationary and floating book barge. A hotshot author, young enough to be Perdu’s son, joins him on the adventure. They both seek the same thing in a way. Perdu aims to reconcile and recover from his lost love, while Max desires true love in the first place.
Jean’s lost love with Manon was deep. She described in her diary how, “I am so foreign to myself. It’s as if Jean had peeled back a shell to reveal a deeper, truer self who is reaching out to me with a mocking grin.” Jean may have lost Manon, but the ugly surprise he receives from her letter indicates that her love for him was never lost. She was sick. She could not face him with the truth. Escaping to the south of France, she planned to spend the rest of her days with her family. Yes, Manon had a husband and was about to give birth to a child. In the letter she begged Jean to come and be with them while she laid to rest forever. He never came. When he finally read the letter, he understood his mistake. What comes next is an incredible journey through the heart of France, from Champagne and Burgundy, to Lyon and Marseille. It made me want to find my own book barge and navigate the rivers of France, meeting interesting people, eating delicious food, and bartering with books along the way.
Perdu picks up more comrades on his journey south. An Italian and an author he’s pursued ever since reading her book, Southern Lights. His company supports him every step of the way, and he in turn bestows much of his wisdom and many of his possessions onto them.
Two of my favorite quotes from the novel focus on books and love:
“The world’s rulers should be forced to take a reader’s license. Only when they have read five thousand – no, make that ten thousand – books will they be anywhere near qualified to understand humans and how they behave.”
“I think – and correct me if I’m getting too carried away with my ideas about the global sisterhood – that first there is the love in which we think about our knickers. I know all about that. It’s fun for about fifteen minutes. Second there’s logical love, the type we create in our heads; I’ve experienced that too. You look for men who objectively suit your setup or who won’t upset your life plans too much, but you don’t feel any magic. And third, there’s the love that comes from your chest or your solar plexus, or somewhere in between. That’s the type I want. It’s got to have the magic that sets my lifeblood alight, right down to the tiniest little globule. What do you think?”
The Little Paris Bookshop is worth the read, but you must be in the mood. The pages fly by, as it’s a fairly easy read. It may overwhelm some who are not prepared to indulge in a romantically ostentatious journey through the south of France, but I found great wisdom in this book. On life, on love, on loss, and everything in between, Nina George captures your attention at every word and makes you feel the passion on every page.