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Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop

Jean Perdu is the protagonist is this reflection on life, loss, grief and renewal. I immediately, upon reading his name, even before entering his story, thought of him as Lost John, the English translation of his name. Initially, this seems to be quite apt. Jean Perdu is a man who lives alone--well, with two cats and lots of books--in a small apartment in Paris. It is sparsely furnished, since he has destroyed all its original furnishings. He owns a barge on Seine which he has converted into a bookshop and it is there and in the hallways of his apartment building that he has what little contact with humans he wants. He is 50 years old and while he is able to read into the hearts and minds of his customers he has all but shut down his own emotions and is deliberately remote from any human entanglement. Upon returning home one day he is informed by the concierge that a woman, recently divorced, has moved into the apartment across from his. Further, he is told she arrived with little but a few clothes and is in need of a table. Jean, to the readers' amazement, moves a large bookcase to reveal a room in his apartment that he has hidden and tried to forget. It is here that he lived and loved _____, as he refers to her, before she left him without warning, 21 years ago. He retrieves a table and chairs and takes them across the hall, but merely knocks on the door gently, since he hears muffled sobbing of the grieving woman within. A few hours later she appears with a letter she has found in the drawer of the table. It is from ___________ and Jean has never opened it. Catherine, the neighbor, invites him to dinner, which he must cook, since she does not know how, and insists that he open and read the letter. Expecting a Dear John letter with all the normal platitudes he is amazed to find that ________ left him because she was dying. She had returned to the South of France, where her home and husband were, and asks Jean to come to her. Obviously, this woman, Manon, has been dead for all of these years and Jean has symbolically died with her. Overcome with remorse, he boards his barge and unmoors it to cruise away from Paris and think. As he starts to float away, a young man, who has written a best selling novel and is now attempting to avoid all publicity, comes running along the bank, throws his belongings toward the barge and misses with soggy results, manages to board the boat himself and off these two, seemingly mismatched souls drift away. I'm not sure to whom this voyage will appeal. There are portions that speak to Max, the young author, and those of his age who have been somewhat successful but don't know what to do with the success. Who are unsure that they can match it again. Who aren't sure if they want to or if they want to attempt another path. Who are not in a relationship and haven't ever really been in one that is serious and seems to have a future. Obviously, the main story relates to Jean, who for all practical purposes has let the last 21 years pass in a fog, in a frozen emotional state, in a drawn out grief that he has tried to in turns overcome or ignore. He lost what he considered the love of his life, a woman who though single when they met, opted to marry her childhood sweetheart and then divide her life between them, loving them both, yet in the end, leaving one behind with no verbal explanation. During this voyage, that soon has its direction to the South of France, Jean makes the voyage of self analysis, evaluation of his relationship to Manon, his handling of her going and his future or what is left of it. Along the way, he meets a Sicilian chef, who joins the barge and who has been searching the rivers of France for a woman he has met in his youth and with whom he has spent only one day. As we cruise the rivers and canals of France we are introduced to the scenes, scents and sounds of the countryside outside of Paris and, once Caseo joins the entourage, the tastes of its cuisines. In time, an authoress in her 50's who has never found the man of her dreams, Samy, too joins the sailors. In the end, many of common events of life and death and how they affect people in different ways are explored. How individuals deal with Hesse's stages, right or wrong, are uncovered. Sometimes, it was hard to relate to the strands--for example, no way could I understand Manon's choices nor her husband's acceptance of them. Other times, the unwillingness to read the letter resonated--why go to the doctor about the spot on the leg--it probably is cancer, well, maybe not--so it will go away. Then, you go and it is nothing or worse, you let it go too long, and it IS cancer--why the heck not read the damned letter and get it done with? Then what do you do with the news? Do you just vegetate and wait it out? Like Jean, stop living and brood for years over the rejection or pick up the pieces and live--really live! Have an open heart and let new love move in or close the heart and become emotionally constipated? I found the book irritating and it made me impatient at times. Other times I felt profound sadness and then sometimes hope. In many cases there was happiness and gladness and warmth. Yet at times the remembrance of losses and the possibilities of future loss made me apprehensive and helpless. One thing that it was always was thought provoking. It also gave me a new simple freedom--I'd always been taught not to turn down the corners of pages in books and not to write in them. Well, this book has underlines, marginalia and dog eared pages so that I can review some of those things that made me think. And as a final touch the author provides a bibliography of books to use as antidotes to some of life's " small emotions" as well as some recipes to prepare to provide a bit of the warmth of Provencal in your Northern kitchen.

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