Paris and books
I’m always on the search for a good book set in Paris, and if it features a bookstore, so much the better. Before I review the latest find, however, I have a complaint for the authors and/or publishers out there about their misleading titles.
Jenny Colgan wrote a book called (here in the United States) The Bookshop on the Corner. On the cover is the window display of a typical bookshop on the corner of a street. The bookshop in question (the one in the book) is packed inside a giant van that travels around the countryside in rural Scotland like a bookmobile. They should have stuck with the U.K. title, The Little Shop of Happy Ever After (although I would still argue that a van is not a shop, it is a van). Nina George wrote a book called The Little Paris Bookshop, and while the story starts in Paris, the bookshop itself is on a barge floating on the Seine, and the owner and his friend subsequently sail away to Provence in it, down the canals of France. So, also not really a shop, per se, but a book barge, and not, ultimately, in Paris.
The book I am reviewing today is Rebecca Raisin’s effort, The Little Bookshop on the Seine. It could have swapped titles with George’s book, where the shop was physically on the Seine, whereas this shop is only able to boast a river-facing address.
There is a scene in the book in which the protagonist and her boyfriend walk past and discuss the small green stalls of the Bouquinistes, sellers of used and antiquarian books who ply their trade along large sections of the banks of the Seine. These stalls could equally qualify as “on” (i.e., directly adjacent to) the Seine, but Once Upon A Time, the bookshop in Raisin’s story, while initially described as facing the bank, doesn’t seem to take much of its identity from its address, since it’s mentioned at the beginning and never again. Although the shop attracts a large tourist component as part of its clientele, there is no specific tie-in with the life of the river.
This is, sadly, not the only part of the book with which I had issues. First, I took a look at Raisin’s list of published books and experienced a whopping dollop of dejá vu: It seemed like both the titles and the book covers had been lifted from the booklist of writer Jenny Colgan!
There is one featuring a book van (her publisher did manage to get
the word “traveling” into the title!), one with a Gingerbread Café (Colgan’s is a Cupcake Café), and then there’s the Paris series, which includes a perfume shop and an antique store, whereas Colgan has a chocolate shop. The five-star ratings, however, from the bulk of Raisin’s readers show that, regardless of repetitive plots and similar locales, there seems to be an infinite market for this type of feel-good romantic “cozy.”
Having read this one of Raisin’s after having gone through Jenny Colgan’s entire list, I have to say that Colgan is a better writer, and has a better editor to boot. My biggest issue with The Little Bookshop on the Seine is how over-written it is: One adjective will simply not do when five can be better employed, and one telling of a character’s feelings and emotions can apparently only be improved upon by continuing to focus on them in multiple chapters but without expansion. There is simultaneously too much telling instead of showing, and too little exposition on what has been revealed. Also, there is an occasional misuse of a word (“they plied me full of sweets,” “I loved having a place for customers to languish” and “you could eke your way around searching for the right novel” being some of the most egregious) that sets my teeth on edge.
Raisin’s books are much more about the romance genre than are Colgan’s—there’s a fair amount of commentary about such things as rippling abs, tight pants, and bulky biceps—but the romance in this one is truly lackluster, with the protagonist dwelling obsessively on the details and prospects of her relationship with a man who neither she nor anyone else (after she relentlessly runs herself down) can believe would actually choose her.
Aside from all that, however (Mr. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?), I greatly appreciated some aspects of this book, and it was all to do with the setting. The premise is a good one (and has been used before many times, from Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road to the film The Holiday, with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz): Two women temporarily unhappy with the way their lives are going decide to swap places. In this case, it’s Sarah, with her used bookshop in a quiet town in Connecticut, who is invited by Sophie, whose busy store in Paris couldn’t be a bigger contrast, to switch lives for a while, after Sophie has been humiliated in a love affair, the young lover in question now engaged to (and flaunting) a woman who works in the shop next door to hers. Sarah, who has been feeling frustrated at the stagnation of her life, tired of sitting around waiting for her boyfriend to make an appearance—he is a freelance journalist who follows stories around the world—decides this is a good chance to get out of her rut, quit being so timid, and experience Life (yes, that capital letter is on purpose).
The endless (and repetitive) relating of the conversations between Sarah and absent boyfriend Ridge, between Sarah and everyone else who wonders how it’s going with Ridge, and between Sarah and her own insecure self really drag down the narrative; likewise, Sarah’s lack of confidence in her ability to work with Sophie’s staff and run the bookshop to Sophie’s standards is exhibited over and over again to the point where the reader would like to give everyone involved a firm shaking until their heads swim. The difference in the two situations is understandable—a quiet backwater store with one employee vs. a busy tourist attraction with a rotating staff and multiple challenges—but the time it takes for Sarah to finally get some gumption is tiresome.
Then there is the rest of the book, which consists of a rather eloquent and beautiful love letter to Paris at Christmas and to books. Each time Sarah manages to step outside the front door of the shop and also out of her head, we are treated to some lyrically worded descriptions of the luminous city and what it evokes; similarly, when Sarah is concentrating on helping people to find the perfect book for every occasion, the narrative shines. I got to the point where I was skimming over the parts detailing the central relationship in favor of the scenes with the quirky people Sarah met on her walks and the friends she made as she expanded her lifestyle to include the quintessential Paris experience.
If I hadn’t been so seduced by all this French atmosphere, I would have been truly disappointed by the flatness of the romance. At one point in the book, a man Sarah has befriended shows signs of interest, which immediately piqued mine as I wondered if perhaps the whole point of the absent boyfriend was to send her along to the guy with whom she was meant to be. Sadly, that plot point didn’t pan out, and the story continued on its clichéd path to the end.
People read books for all kinds of reasons, and what I would say about this one is, if your priority is to swoon over the romance, this is not the book (or author?) for you; but if you want to read a book so evocative in its setting that you can imagine yourself present in the protagonist’s footsteps, then you may achieve satisfaction from this book by Rebecca Raisin.