What an interesting concept for a book! In terms of form, 13, rue Thérèse is unlike anything I’ve read, with the possible exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 bestseller House of Leaves (note to self: re-read that one for a review!). Though Shapiro isn’t easy on her readers—the novel is nonlinear, incorporates photographic images, fraught with footnotes and encourages online interaction—13, rue Thérèse is nonetheless a compulsively readable page-turner. Though not without its missteps, Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel is an exciting debut that I am excited to share with others.
In 1983, Shapiro’s mother salvaged a box of mementos from a recently deceased neighbor’s apartment in the building at the real-life 13, rue Thérèse, in Paris. That recently deceased neighbor is Louise Brunet, whose life is the subject of Shapiro’s novel. The box contains souvenirs of the owner’s life: love letters from World War I, mesh gloves, a scarf, photographs, “stray cash”. Shapiro connects the objects together with her imagination, wielding a beguiling tale of the many mysteries surrounding one woman’s life. As Shapiro proclaims in her afterword, “…[Louise] gave me the stars. I merely drew the constellations”.
What I appreciated most about this novel was the imagination of the author that created it. Shapiro manages to connect each of the seemingly random objects in the box together to create a plausible—if not uncomplicated—rendering of Louise Brunet’s life. Shapiro frames the story with the introduction of Trevor Stratton, an American professor teaching at a university in Paris. Upon his arrival at his new job, Trevor happens upon the very box Shapiro’s mother acquired in 1983 (placed there by Josianne, Trevor’s alluring secretary) and quickly becomes absorbed with its contents. By way of Trevor’s bewitching experience with the box, the reader is captivated not only by Louise’s fascinating life, but Trevor’s, Josianne’s and the many men of Louise’s as well.
While I loved the quirky nature of the mysteries of 13, rue Thérèse, these mysteries caused some problems for me as well. Essentially, there are just too many of them. As the stories of Louise, Henri, Camille, Xavier, Trevor and Josianne begin to unfold, I found the addition of Louise piano student, Garance, and her unique plight, a bit superfluous. While Garance’s set of problems do ultimately push Louise’s plot forward, I couldn’t help but wish that Shapiro had found a simpler way to achieve this and dedicated more time to either Trevor, Josianne or Louise herself.
Overall, I very much enjoyed Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut. After getting a taste of this unique novel, I look forward to the publishing of more “interactive” books like 13, rue Thérèse in the future.