Category Archives: French

‘13, rue Thérèse’ by Elena Mauli Shapiro

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.


‘You Deserve Nothing’ by Alexander Maksik

Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is a great example of why I love Europa Editions. With Europa Editions you can count on quirky, contemporary reads told from a new perspective, and this is undoubtedly what you’ll find here. In You Deserve Nothing, a provocative and inspiring teacher, Will Silver, influences high school students Gilad and Marie in a profound way. In a compelling, narrator-jumping style, Maksik manages to offer a fresh take on the idea of moral responsibility in a high school setting.

While the plot of this novel has been done before—a young, hip high school teacher engages in an inappropriate relationship with a student—Maksik’s Parisian setting and discourses on existentialism render the trope anew. Will, in his early thirties and recovering from the difficult breakup of his marriage, is teaching in his third year at the International School of France. Gilad, the son of an American diplomat, is privileged and well-travelled, susceptible to the influence of role models at school as an alternative to his abusive father at home. Like Gilad, Marie’s parents are intensely critical of her, leaving her desperate for any type of approval she can manage from authority figures at school. Through the interactions of these three characters, Maksik asks his readers examine the boundaries of morality and determine to what extent we, as humans, should be held responsible for our actions.

There is one word I can ascribe to both the strengths and weaknesses of You Deserve Nothing: indulgence. Maksik, a part-time resident of Paris, treats his readers to a local’s version of the City of Light. His characters are alternately seen stopping into the corner boulangerie on the way to a tryst, spending Saturday morning at an outdoor café sipping café au lait and reading Camus, and taking part in an defiantly anti-American war protest. While this imagery alone is enough to hook any Francophile, Maksik also endows his prose with lengthy classroom passages expounding on the ideas of philosophical heavyweights Sartre, Faulkner and Keats. While I actually enjoyed all of this romanticized imagery, Maksik’s indulgence lost much of its appeal with regard to the surprisingly explicit sex scenes. For me, the detailed account of Will and Marie’s affair cheapened the novel, lending itself to a younger, “YA” audience.

Overall, Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is a treat of a novel. I look forward to reading more from this talented writer now that his first novel is successfully under his belt.

Pretty-boy’s Ambition

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

I would never have expected to like a novel featuring a central character as contemptible as George “Pretty-boy” Duroy. However, the authenticity and grandeur of Guy de Maupassant’s Paris in his masterpiece Bel-Ami surpasses the utter smarminess of its antihero. This novel on the corrupt side of human ambition is not only addictive to read, but frighteningly modern as well.

“Bel-ami” (translated to “Pretty-boy” in my edition) is the moniker given to the aspiring journalist George Duroy by the daughter of his mistress, Madame Clotilde de Marelle. The nickname sticks and Duroy is happily referred by it as he maneuvers his way up the social ladder of late 19th century Parisian society. The diminutive is apt as it is by way of society women like de Marelle that Duroy is able to realize his social and financial ambitions.

It is clear that Duroy’s rise from a poor, graceless amateur to wealthy newspaper professional is impressive; however, one finishes the novel with the feeling that while happy for the moment, Duroy’s contentedness will not last. As he exits the wedding hall with Susan, his young heiress of a bride, his thoughts revert quickly to the more sensual Clotilde. With this image, the realization of the destructive effect of Duroy’s ruthless ambition is complete.

Duory, however, is not the only character willing to cross the line of morality in order to realize his ambition. Madeleine Forestier, the wife of Duroy’s earliest benefactor, is essentially a female version of the title character. Like Duroy, Madeleine employs less-than-sterling tactics as she orchestrates her own climb into Paris’s social elite. Just as Duroy manipulates the affections of society women for his own gain, Madeleine charms professional upstarts in order to mold them into the type of men that will further her own ideas and social standing. Like Duroy, Madeleine’s capability for true happiness is left in the balance as her ambition is never fully realized.

If Bel-Ami is to be read as a cautionary tale on the hazards of ruthless ambition, it offers its readers an alternative to the destruction it details. By way of the monologue of Norbert de Varenne, a poet-colleague of Duroy’s, Maupassant advises us not to yield to insatiable ambition, rather to seek the company of others and hope for the opportunity to love and be loved most of all.

Maupassant’s classic novel of ambition, Bel-Ami, is a surprisingly engaging read, despite the lack of empathy I felt for nearly all of its characters. Despite that fact, I am glad to have spent the time I did with Duroy in his glamorous quest for importance.

The Bookshop of Dreams

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cosse

If there was a ever a book that expressed the collective booklover’s dream world A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is it.  Two literary zealots, Francesca, the socialite, and Ivan, the nomad, discover one another in a bookshop outside of Paris and decide to open the ideal bookstore.  The concept of the store, The Good Novel, is simple: the store will be stocked solely with tastefully good novels via an ingenious selection process allowing eight worthy contemporary writers, unaware of each others’ identities, to each select 600 titles that will, without fail, be in stock.  Financed by Francesca’s inherited small fortune, the bookshop hits the ground running and immediately attracts a horde of devout followers.  Surely every reader of this book, myself included, imagines him/herself as a part of that horde.

However, the success of this bookish utopia does not last.  Sub-par writers fueled with envy, publishers motivated by greed and critics driven by pure sloth all stand to fail as The Good Novel succeeds and as a result, they retaliate en force.  These retaliations, beginning with seemingly innocuous op ed articles and graduating to full blown attempted murder, are the conflict at the center of the novel.  However, the novel is ripe with other thematic elements: romance and fantasy included.

For me, the weakest element of the novel was the romance.  Ivan, The Good Novel’s middle-aged primary bookseller falls head over heels early on with Anis (a self-imposed nickname for Anne-Isabelle), a woman with a troubled past who is nearly half his age.  Possibly it was the age difference that threw me, or maybe the characters’ contrived loner lifestyle we are constantly reminded of, but the romance between the two, for me, fell completely flat.

However, the portion of the novel dealing with the history of the bookstore and the mystery surrounding the characters and crimes was completely engaging.  Cosse conjures a store with an intricate makeup and backstory that is both sensical and ideal to her readers.  The Good Novel is any booklover’s dream shopping haven and I found myself constantly jotting down authors and titles to sample.

A final point of note on A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is the narrative style.  Conveyed in first person, a narrator not fully revealed until the final stages reminds the reader of the personal connections one has with a bookstore of this conceptual magnitude.  The narrator imposes its presence at times and pulls back at others, but ultimately adds a great deal to the final product.  The narrator becomes a new characters whose history and positions the reader cares about and is interested to discover.

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is a treasure for any lover of good books.  Not only is it an indulgent treat in a fantasy bookshop setting, but a persuasive treatise on the state of for-profit publishing today.  Via the fictional haven The Good Novel, this reader is reminded and encouraged by her passion for good books.

Flaubert’s Tragic Dreamer

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary is a tragedy, told with cynicism.  The genius of this book is not in its plot, which is quite simple, but rather through the depth of its characters.

The story begins with Charles Bovary, a mediocre man with mediocre ambitions, whose only extravagance in life is his deep love for his wife, Emma Bovary.  Emma is different from Charles in every way.  She is excessively ambitious, extraordinarily selfish and acutely emotional.  Each of these negative traits is emphasized by her union with Charles, who is in each of these ways her opposite.  The action of the story focuses around Emma’s inevitable infidelities.  Her first lover is Rodolphe, a wealthy womanizer who awakens in Emma the lust and passion she has learned to yearn after from literature.  After a period of mourning after he deserts her, Emma gravitates to Leon, a law student whose love for literature and culture appeals to her love of the same.  Her lustful affairs, however, do not satisfy her desire for a different life, and she takes out numerous loans from a predatory lender in order to finance her covetous eye.  Eventually, her affairs and financial woes triumph and she succumbs to her tragic destiny by committing a nearly botched suicide.

As Charles and Emma play out their calamitous fate, Flaubert’s greatest creation, Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacisit, prevails.  Through his deplorable ambition and contemptible pretentiousness, Homais directly portrays the pernicious effect of banality engendered during France’s July Monarchy.  The subtle suplot of Homais’s success is possibly even more tragic than the deaths of Charles and Emma and the sad fate of their orphaned daughter.  When Homais succeeds, the banal and the bombastic triumph over true emotion and honest tragedy.  This notion makes the novel a perfect reading of existentialism.

Reinforcing this point is the language Flaubert chose to use.  The introduction of the edition I read (Alfred A. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library) noted that the author allowed himself five years to complete the book.  Though Flaubert believed that this was an embarrassingly large amount of time, the painstakingly careful choice of language conveys the argument of the novel perfectly.  The cliches and chatter of the novel emphasize the argument that it is tragic that government-enforced banality should triumph over art and emotion.

Overall, I found Madame Bovary to be a great book that is deserving of its place as a fixture in the French canon of literature.

To Become Human Again

A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo

A Sun for the Dying is a heartbreaking story of homelessness in France.  Rico’s story begins with the death of a friend and fellow “down-and-out,” Titi.  Titi’s death by exposure in a train station in Paris greatly affects Rico, and prompts him to flee Paris for his beloved Marseilles, the city containing the only good memories he can conjure.  During his journey, the reader is introduced to a snapshot of the very poor in France.  These people include victims of human trafficking (Mirjana), orphans forced to flee violence in their home countries (Abdou and the Young Strays) as well as the inevitable indifferent criminal (Dede).  Though their origins and stories differ, a similar thread connects them.  Each longs for a human connection that validates their existences.  Until the end, however, none appear to find it.

Rico’s path to homelessness begins essentially when he chooses to marry the socialite-to-be Sophie over the more genuine Lea.  Rico falls victim to Sophie’s lustful allure and begins his life with her, fathering a son, Julien, in the process.  Eventually their obvious incompatibility becomes too much to bear and Sophie leaves Rico for a mutual friend, Alain, cutting him off from Julien in the process.  Though Rico’s ensuing despair appears to stem from his rejection by Sophie, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that his anguish comes from the loss of his most profound connection, his son.

In part two of the book, the narrator’s identity is revealed.  Abdou is a teenager from Algiers, orphaned at an early age and traumatized both emotionally and physically by his journey to Marseilles in the boiler room of a freighter.  Abdou finds a father figure in Rico, and Rico eventually expresses a fatherly love for Abdou in return.  Therefore, while the life is bleak and often hopeless for most characters, it appears that Abdou can be saved from Rico’s fate as he has learned that it is possible to pick up the shattered pieces of his life and connect with the world again.

The Always in Never

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I’ve spent the last few days looking forward to my daily dose of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Muriel Barbery’s novel about two unlikely intellectuals reads almost like a series of essays at times (and I regret to say, there are a few somewhat dull passages), but due to the quality and authenticity of the writing, is a rewarding page-turner.

In terms of structure, the book is broken up into the narratives of the two aforementioned protagonists: Renee Michel, the concierge of an upscale Paris apartment building and Paloma, the twelve-year-old daughter of one of the building’s tenant-families.  Renee’s narrative is essentially a journal detailing briefly the events of her life but at length her thoughts on Art, Beauty and her clandestine intellectual lifestyle.  Paloma’s narrative is split between her own two journals: her diary of “Profound Thoughts” and her similar “Journal of the Movement of the World.”  Though both protagonists unknowingly share a similar view on life, their worlds do not collide until a new resident, the cultured, kind and wise Mr. Kakuro Ozu, moves in and brings them together.

If I were to give this book a thesis it would be this: in a world view in which all humans are bound to a “biological destiny” in which we are simply animals surviving among others, the appreciation of Beauty makes life worthwhile.  We live in a world in which chaos and absurdity abound; however, through appreciation of the small moments in life that exact emotion and a sense of artistry, we can relish in the memories we are left with.

Regarding the writing itself, I appreciated the technical differences between each narrative style–Paloma’s intelligent, but juvenile and Renee’s astute but at times scattered (fitting as she is the autodidact of the two).  As a change of pace, I also enjoyed reading a book that, as many of its reviews confirm, is not at all American.  Many instances throughout the book triggered this thought for me, primarily the naturalist non-Christian foundation and the notion that self-realization is more a result of one’s acumination of intelligence and transparency, not hard work and equal opportunity.  While I don’t necessarily believe that the French have it right, it was certainly refreshing to read another point of view.

Overall, my opinion of this book is very positive.  Though I don’t believe it is for everyone (it is defintiely for a public “mass audience”, which not everyone will appreciate), I will certainly recommend it to certain others.