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Laurence Cossé's "A Novel Bookstore"

By Elizabeth Hand
Saturday, November 6, 2010; C03

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE

by Laurence Cossé

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa. 416 pp. Paperback, $15

"All the literati keep/An imaginary friend," wrote W.H. Auden. Now bibliophiles can also share the joys and perils of running an imaginary bookstore, at 9 bis, rue Dupuytren, Paris. That's where Francesca and Ivan, the star-crossed, middle-aged book lovers in Laurence Cossé's "A Novel Bookstore," decide to open their shop, the Good Novel. (That name reflects the novel's French title, "Au bon roman"; the address makes it a neighbor to Sylvia Beach's original Shakespeare & Co., at 8 rue Dupuytren.)

From the outset, Francesca and Ivan, known as Van, set the bar high for both their store and its clientele: "The Good Novel will not be an ordinary bookstore. . . . Our customers won't be ordinary customers. The people we'll see at our store will be people who never buy a book because it just came out, unless they adore the author already, but for other reasons that have nothing to do with its pub date, because they couldn't care less about that. They'll be the people who go into a bookstore knowing what they want to buy, and they go straight to the bookseller and say, I'd like Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake. People who won't be surprised if we tell them the book is not in stock . . . and who'll order it without hesitating, because they don't mind if it comes three or eight days later."

Never mind that millions of people now buy books online or download them onto iPads and Kindles and Nooks. In an effort to appeal to readers, Cossé over-eggs le gateau: Her novel is at once a wish-fulfillment fantasy for bibliophiles, a love story, a satire of the contemporary literary scene, and a mystery, complete with a patient young police prefect of a literary bent.

Detective work is necessary because, as the novel opens, three noted writers associated with the Good Novel have been attacked and left for dead. The writers are anonymous members of the eight-person Committee, the secret group Francesca and Van convene to choose the books their store will sell. Cossé devotes pages and pages to this intricate selection process -- the identities of the Committee members are known only to Francesca and Van, and each is responsible for suggesting 600 titles.

" 'Is Pierre Bettencourt's L'Intouchable on the list?' asked Francesca worriedly.

" 'Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate,' said Van, searching.

" 'All of McCarthy, I hope . . .'

" 'How many by Nicolas Bouvier?'

" 'Be-Bop, by Christian Gailly?' "

Charming as much of this is, at times "A Novel Bookstore" reads more like a business plan than a page-turner. Fortunately, the pace picks up once the back story involving the store's creation is dispensed with. From its opening day, the Good Novel inspires both rapturous customer loyalty and outrage from those who cite its refusal to stock Dan Brown as pure elitism, not to mention commercial folly. Francesca and Van point out that, if asked, they will certainly order whatever a customer wants, but a decided whiff of bibliosnobbery hangs above those beautifully designed bookshelves.

Francesca and Van soon learn that the enemies of literature are legion -- and well-organized. Newspaper editorials attack the Good Novel; Web sites condemn it; armies of the night cover Paris with posters decrying its exclusionary practices; rival bookstores open across the street. Who is behind these guerrilla attacks on the gatekeepers of great literature? Prime suspects include Francesca's media-tycoon husband, a Gallic Rupert Murdoch; Van's mercurial young lover; and every French novelist whose work failed to make the Committee's list.

Cossé, a noted journalist as well as a successful novelist in her native France, has a gift for clever if sometimes heavy-handed satire of the Paris literary scene, even if her characters behave like stock figures. Hélas, the novel's ending falls flat, and the mystery's resolution evokes a resounding "Huh?"

Still, many readers will find a reason to linger in "A Novel Bookstore," which makes a good argument for literature as a sensual pleasure surpassing even sex and fine wine. A visit to http://www.thegoodnovel.com allows one to peruse some of the Committee's choices. These include "Madame Bovary," but not Posy Simmonds's brilliant graphic novel reconstruction, "Gemma Bovery." Which means that I, hypocrite lecteur, may bypass the Good Novel for the Waterstone's across the street.

Hand's most recent novel is "Illyria."

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