By Nina George
Crown. 392 pp. $25
Nina George’s international bestseller “The Little Paris Bookshop” looks like a triumph of the confectioner’s art: pink, glossy, garlanded with icing rosettes in the form of admiring blurbs from readers and authors. It’s oozing with the sort of ingredients that cause a sugar rush of emotional associations: Paris, Provence, charming book stores, eccentric landladies, lost loves, even cats. But as with many fancy-looking cakes, under the meringue and the frosting this novel tastes like artificially flavored cardboard.
Its hero, a prissy-seeming middle-aged bookseller with the heavily freighted name of Jean Perdu, lives in an apartment house in the Marais filled with enough colorful tenants for 10 Wes Anderson movies — among them Che, a blind chiropodist; Clara Violette, a claustrophobic concert pianist; and Max Jordan, an earmuff-wearing hipster novelist paralyzed by the phenomenal success of his first book. Perdu calls his bookshop, on a barge in the Seine, the Literary Apothecary, because he doesn’t just sell books to his customers, he prescribes them to suit the psychic ills he diagnoses in his clientele.
He is, however, unable to treat his own depression, caused by the disappearance, 20 years ago, of his great love, a woman whose loss is so traumatizing that he thinks of her as “____.” Eventually, we learn that her name was Manon, that she came from Provence, and that she was “always in the now” until she left him and translated herself into the past tense.
These discoveries are precipitated by the arrival of Catherine, a tearful almost-divorcee with soft gray eyes and no furniture. When she moves into the flat opposite Perdu’s, he gives her a table he’s been keeping in a room locked since Manon’s disappearance, and she discovers a letter in one of the drawers. It’s from Manon — a Dear John (or Cher Jean) letter that Catherine forces him to open: It turns out that Manon left him and returned to her winegrower husband in Provence because she’d been diagnosed with cancer, and in the letter she begged him to come to her and say goodbye.
Twenty years too late, Perdu is guilt- and grief-stricken. Despite the attraction he has begun to feel toward Catherine (“I am a man . . . again,” he muses, in italics, after an encounter with her), he decides to go to Provence to find either Manon or her widower. But instead of buying a ticket for the TGV, he casts off the lines mooring the Literary Apothecary to its riverbank, planning to “travel south by water to find answers to [his] dreams.” And the blocked Max Jordan goes with him, because, he says, “I want to . . . look for a story. Because . . . I’ve nothing left inside.” (Those ellipses are Max’s. This author has a thing for them.)
The ill-assorted pair (accompanied by Perdu’s cats, Kafka and Lindgren) travel up the Seine, through a series of locks and down to Provence. As the scenery and a host of whimsical minor characters glide by, Perdu recalls a summer spent going back to nature with Manon in the Camargue: “He had run, naked and howling, up and down the fine, white sand beaches,” while “Manon’s hair dangled over her breasts as she rode naked”; not to be outdone, Max unpacks his own memories of a traumatizing and dysfunctional childhood. The shipmates pick up two other passengers, a Neapolitan cook who produces miracles of Provençal cuisine in the barge’s galley and an eccentric bookseller; they take turns spouting platitudes such as, “You have to taste a country’s soul to understand it” and, “When it comes down to it, you only regret the things you didn’t do.”
Naturally, by the time we get to the predictably lavender-scented hills of Provence, the two tag-along characters have fallen in love, while Perdu and Max have fallen into a father-son bromance. The scales have fallen from Perdu’s eyes, Max has fallen for a new book idea, and everything has fallen into place. It’s not quite “Chocolat” meets “84 Charing Cross Road,” but it’s close.
As Perdu comments to his sidekick: “Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues. And some . . . well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful void.” He should know.
Vaill is the author, most recently, of “Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.”