The Little Paris Bookshop

little paris bookshopI 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):

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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58 Responses to The Little Paris Bookshop

  1. Lisa says:

    I snickered all the way through this review, which is clearly much more entertaining than the book itself. Thank God no one in my book groups has yet suggested this one. I don’t think I could read it now. I’ll be interested to hear what your book group makes of it! And I wonder if the sex scenes were entered in the annual competition for worst ever. I can’t remember the name of the award now.

    • Jenny says:

      I have to admit I am looking forward to our book group meeting this Saturday with a certain amount of trepidation. I hope I’m not the only one who loathed it. And oh, Lisa, the sex scenes were just unspeakable. If they don’t meet the criteria for worst ever, I have to say someone’s not paying attention.

    • realthog says:

      It’s called (appropriately enough) the Bad Sex Award. It was inaugurated by Auberon Waugh at a UK magazine whose name momentarily escapes me (not Private Eye).

  2. Swistle says:

    This review was entirely delightful to read. I know just the sort of book you mean. And I too am interested to hear what your book group thinks of it. Also, I am interested to know how the book has changed your feelings toward whichever member selected it.

    • Jenny says:

      I try hard not to judge people for what they like to read — whatever brings you pleasure is okay with me! But now that she has INFLICTED it on an entire group, it’s kind of a different matter, don’t you think? Oh, Swistle, it was so horrible. Ewwww.

  3. Elle says:

    I do love a good scathing review. This sounds irredeemably dreadful. But now I am very tempted to find out what “the honking of a flying crane” sounds like… (Did no one tell the author that “honking” is Not A Sexy Word?)

    • Jenny says:

      Well, Tom (below) claims that my linked video of sandhill cranes isn’t the right one, so see if you can find one of a common crane. But still! It was completely ridiculous. And more than 350 pages long, I’m sorry to say.

  4. Joanne says:

    Thank you! I too loathed this book but I didn’t get as far as you did before giving up. Every time I see it on a list of recommended reads (usually books about books), I wonder if I read the same book.

    • Jenny says:

      That “books about books” thing was just another nail in the coffin. I thought about mentioning the fact that despite this book supposedly taking place in France, almost none of the books are French (except imaginary books and erotica), but I thought that might be nitpicking. Ugh.

  5. heavenali says:

    Thanks for the warning. I saw this in Waterstone’s recently and thought -‘oh I bet that’s quite a nice book’ – it sounds awful.

  6. Jeane says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha. Sometimes reading about awful books is just funny- sorry you had to read it! I actually like the way cranes sound, it’s so different- but I’d never describe it as “honking”. More like a rattling trumpet, or a chattering bike horn. Yes- it’s just like a bike horn toot only with a chatter! Anyway, I can’t imagine anyone laughing like that, or finding that attractive? so you made me laugh, too.

    • Jenny says:

      That was the moment I got a much-needed laugh from the book. I can’t say I’m confident the author meant it as comic relief, but I sure took it that way. Up until then, it had just been so cringingly awful I couldn’t even smile.

  7. What suckers we can be about “books about books.” “We” meaning people other than, for example, us. The “Literary Apothecary” idea by itself makes we wince, forget the rest of the book.

    Does the free-spirited lover look like Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim?

    In fairness, the character is likely imagining the sinuous screeching of the Common Crane, not the Sandhill Crane. Unless he did his study abroad in Nebraska? Nebraskans love sandhill cranes.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for that recording! The common crane makes more sense than the sandhill crane, you’re right, since Nina George is German.

      The Literary Apothecary idea is one of the most cringe-inducing ideas of the entire book. I see you understand why.

  8. rohanmaitzen says:

    I am certainly grateful for the warning! As Tom says, “we” (ahem, actually including me) are suckers for a certain kind of book, or a book that looks like it. I like to think I would not have been tempted by this one, but in a weak moment I might have thought “how sweet that sounds — just right for light summer reading!” I will stick to grim Italian noir.

    • I have been part of that “we,” too.

      I see this a few lines later: “She laughed like an entire flock of cranes.”

      That’s pretty funny, actually.

      • Jenny says:

        I had already started laughing (a little hysterically) at the laugh-like-a-crane-in-flight line, and when I came across this sequel, I lost it completely. I can’t imagine the author thought it was comic relief, but it was very welcome.

    • Jenny says:

      I have to tell you, Rohan, as soon as I finished this book, I immediately began reading Silas Marner as a palate-cleanser (and it answered very well.) Italian noir probably would have worked nicely, too!

  9. Thomas says:

    Your review actually bears out what I assumed just by looking that cover. So clearly designed to manipulate people who love Paris and bookshops. But the real problem Teresa, is that you need to just learn how to sail across the sky.

    • Jenny says:

      I must admit that I have no earthly notion how to pick up that little trick, nor how to stop thinking and use only my body (for tango or any other use), nor quite a few other things this book suggests women are good at. I’m such a failure.

  10. J.G. says:

    Ugh. I loathe this kind of book. Even your review gave me the creeps. Well done! :-)

  11. lailaarch says:

    Hilarious review! I would love to be a fly on the wall of your book group meeting. Meetings are always so much more interesting when people disagree about the book! I had contemplated trying this but love knowing that it’s not worth my time. Thanks!

    • Jenny says:

      I do have some sense that there will be people who liked it. I started the book with the idea that I could be polite about it, but at this point I truly don’t think I can grit my teeth and lie about it.

  12. Marcia Lengnick says:

    I am delighted to find a kindred soul with regard to this book! Painfully dreadful! I was fortunate i did not have to read it so i stopped reading rather quickly. Marcia Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, yes, I’d have stopped about 20 pages in if I hadn’t had to finish. It was clear very early on that this was Not My Sort of Book.

  13. realthog says:

    So you’re a bit iffy about it?

  14. realbooks4ever says:

    Ha ha! Your review really made my day! Tell it like it is, Jenny!

  15. A deliciously energetic response, Jenny. I tried the first few pages of this and gave up in disgust – very impressed (and, because it resulted in this delightful review, thankful) you managed to finish it. What dedication to your book group!

    • Jenny says:

      I’d have fudged my way through if it wasn’t the kind of book group where we actually discuss the book for two solid hours. Oh, Lord.

  16. Thanks books like this are too good.

  17. Doesn’t the title of this book sound like it will be just great? Honestly, the title was the best part. It was so bad I threw it down before I got to the sex scenes. Now, after your description, I have to go back and find them.

  18. Hahahahaha, oh Proper Jenny, I love it when you get salty. This sounds god-awful, and can I, point of order, can I just: They were riding horses naked? Did I read that right? Cause I have never ridden a horse and I don’t know anything about them, but that sounds horribly uncomfortable and not the kind of thing that would put one in the mood to have twee cringe-y sex right afterward. But perhaps I am wrong.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve ridden horses a fair bit (not naked, though) and you are RIGHT. But it’s worse than just the probable extreme discomfort. The author went into horrifying, petrifying DETAIL about what the SMELL and TASTE would be like if you first rode horses naked and then had sex afterward. And in this sort of book! Oh ugh god so horrible.

  19. realbooks4ever says:

    Eww, I feel like I’ve read the book now and I didn’t even want to!

  20. chrisharding53 says:

    I struggled through to chapter 15, and gave up. It was like drowning in marshmallow. I’d read favourable reviews which made it sound charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. There were all those self-consciously quirky characters (Nina George needs to understand that it’s quite acceptable to have ‘normal’ people In a novel). It made me cross because it’s all packaged up as if it is saying something insightful about life and love and everything, when it isn’t.. All that cod psychology/philosophy is total tosh. I’ve never read such twaddle. And I wasn’t expecting the quite explicit sex scenes (I know I’m fuddy duddy, but I would never have bought it if I had known). I’ve turned to Jean Rhys as an antidote.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a good antidote! I started reading Silas Marner immediately afterward, as a palate-cleanser, and it worked very well. (This is a wonderful comment.)

  21. BookBarmy says:

    Thanks for the wonderful review. I also despised this book, although my comments weren’t nearly as funny
    http://www.bookbarmy.com/?s=little+paris+bookshop
    Your line — (snorting out loud with laughter) The ship cannae take another quirk, Captain!
    ….is better than anything written in Little Paris Bookshop
    Book Barmy

  22. Nicola says:

    Very entertaining review – you should write a book!

  23. Christy says:

    This review and all the comments made me laugh quite a bit. Thanks!

  24. What a cracking review! Thank you for persevering on our behalf…

    • Jenny says:

      Believe me, I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the book group (and it made for lively discussion!)

  25. I’m going to come back to this post whenever I need a good laugh. This book definitely sounds like it belongs in the “baffling bestseller” category!

  26. Mary Beth says:

    I have circled this book for a bit. I picked it up in a bookstore recently, considering it. Then put it down. Picked it up, then instinctively put it back after reading the back of it. My Goodreads and library websites keep telling me I want to read this. This review makes me feel good for not. Thank you!

  27. Pingback: Link Love – The Emerald City Book Review

  28. whatmeread says:

    I read about your review on The Emerald City and I just had to read it. This is hilarious. I have stayed away from this book just exactly because I feared it would be like you describe it. Now I am so happy I did!

  29. Lizzy says:

    Ai yi yi! Guess this one will be coming off of my TBR list! Haha.

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