I have a grudge against this book. It looks on the surface (and I do mean the surface, as in the cover) as if it’s going to be a nice book: it’s about a bookseller in Paris, and it’s clearly a romance. What could be so awful? Instead, it is the worst book I’ve read in years. The WORST. Manipulative, saccharine, ghastly, embarrassing. (Before you ask, I finished it because I felt I had to: I was reading it for a book club in which we don’t just socialize, we spend two hours analyzing the book itself. The hours I spent reading it are hours I spent withering away, whispering “Oh God, oh God” to myself.)
The premise of Nina George’s novel is that the (heavily-named) Jean Perdu owns a bookshop on a barge in Paris, called the Literary Apothecary. From this barge, he dispenses literary prescriptions for the malaises his customers bring him, something he can do because he is extremely sensitive and empathic. But… he cannot heal his own terrible pain, left over from when his lover (whom he thinks of only as “______”) left him twenty years ago. Suddenly, new light falls on the situation when his new and beautiful neighbor Catherine finds an unopened letter from ________ in his kitchen table drawer. (It’s a Dear John letter, or I guess a Cher Jean letter.) This revelation causes him to unmoor his barge and go on a trip to the south of France with an equally-suffering customer, Max Jordan, so the two of them can try to heal their pain and find out what truly happened in the past so they can live in the Now (capitalized, I swear it.)
How did I hate it? Let me count the ways (and, I suppose I should warn you, I won’t worry about giving away plot points):
- The prose and characterization are horrible. Horrible! Each character is precious, twee, and overwrought. Every one of Jean Perdu’s neighbors has a quirk: an agoraphobic pianist, a blind chiropodist, a leatherworker from Ghana who puts symbols on his work “that no one in the building could understand,” a cougar with rooms full of high heels. Please, please, please, no more! The ship cannae take another quirk, Captain!
- The generalizations! I didn’t think people wrote books like this any more. Women are like this, men are like that. (From a random page: “Instead of whispering instructions to them, like you would to a horse — lie down, woman, put your harness on — you should listen to them. Listen to what they want. In fact, they want to be free and to sail across the sky.” Gah!) People from the north of France are frigid and have no emotions, people from the south are fiery and live according to their bodies’ desires. People from cities are cold and precise, people from the country are rustic and intelligent with the land’s deep intelligence… oh geez. There was a long, profoundly embarrassing scene about dancing the tango that I’ll spare you. It had nothing to do with the plot, just an excuse for more revolting talk about not thinking too much. Believe me, nobody was thinking too much in this book.
- The unbelievably banal observations about life. Did this author get her insights from a Facebook meme? After “hurting time” and “healing time,” we arrive at insights like “You really only regret the things you didn’t do” and “Children want to please their parents” and “I am a man… again.” (Ellipsis part of the quotation. Nina George loves ellipses.)
- There is an actual Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whose first appearance is to fall backward into a river in a huge storm and need to be rescued. She serves no other purpose but to assist the two men in their emotional development, such as it was. She did, however, send me tipping over the brink from disgust into hysterical laughter, which was welcome, with this line, meant (I believe) to be a romantic description of her closeness to nature: “Her laugh was like the honking of a flying crane, Jean thought.” I beg you, I implore you, to click here and find out what that laugh actually sounds like.
- Jean Perdu’s former lover is a free spirit. She wants to have more than one man: one she marries and one she loves in Paris. This desire is treated as if she is the first person who ever thought of it, despite the fact that I’m guessing Jean has probably got to have a copy of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Effi Briest somewhere on those shelves. She is racked with guilt (despite the fact that it’s just! who! she! is! and she’s extremely! sexual!) and eventually the novel properly punishes her by killing her off — and not just killing her off, but sacrificing all her life force to her (presumably pure) baby daughter. Awesome. Great. Gag me with a spoon.
- Oh, and the wretched, embarrassing sex scenes. I honestly couldn’t believe this. This book is so precious, so twee, so flowery, and then it springs these incredibly awful sex scenes on you where Jean “runs howling and naked” up and down the beach, or they have sex right after they’ve been riding horses naked (and this is super explicit), and Nina George uses words you would not expect for this kind of book, let’s just put it that way. It was so god-awful. I don’t feel I should even have to say that I don’t mind sex in books. But this was horrifying. I think I’m scarred. Hold me.
- The book is manipulative in the worst possible way, intended to be a tear-jerker (no such luck with me), predictable in every possible corner of the plot. There is no trope left unborrowed, no currently-popular image left unransacked. There is nothing in this book that could possibly make you uncomfortable or make you think about something you’d never thought about before. (Unless you’ve never heard a crane laugh.)
Was there anything redeeming about this book? No. In my opinion, it was like eating wet cardboard with the occasional vile gritty bit. However, I will observe that it was apparently a best-seller in Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands, and that there is no accounting for taste, so there’s a chance you’ll like it, or liked it already. No judgment here! Everyone likes different things! But I strongly recommend you try something else, because I love you all and I want to spare you pain.