A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossé, translated from the French by Alison Anderson
First published in 2009
From Goodreads: Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.
I wish that the bookstore at the heart of A Novel Bookstore was real. A shop filled only with the best novels, hand-picked by literary experts, and staffed by people who adore good books? Sign me up. As much as I love my local bookstores, it can be difficult to separate the dross from the gold, and I’m as likely to leave with nothing at all as I am to buy a book or two. So half the appeal of picking up A Novel Bookstore in the first place was the idea of the novel’s bookstore, The Good Novel.
The mystery part of the plot begins right away. Three people are attacked or threatened within the first chapter, and there seems to be no connection between them. Once Francesca and Ivan get wind of these happenings, however, they realize that the timing and the victims were not coincidental, and that the attacks upon them and their bookstore have escalated from online and print harassment to something on an entirely different scale. They realize this is not something they can handle by themselves anymore, and seek help from the police.
It’s at this point where the rest of the story’s elements come into play– the grand idea behind The Good Novel’s origins, a love story that nearly wasn’t, and the despair in the life of someone who only wants to do good for the people around them and yet is constantly judged by society.
The Good Novel’s initial success speaks to the crass commercialism of both the publishing and entertainment industries of the France of A Novel Bookstore, and to the real world. When an industry is constantly searching for the next “#1 Bestseller” instead of the deeper stories that might be a little quieter and little harder than a quick read by Current Hot Author, what is a reader who wants a deeper story to do? How does one search through hundreds of new releases for the very best of the year, or filter through thousands of titles from the past? Even searching through lists of award-winning books won’t guarantee that you’ll find a book you really connect with. So what Ivan and Francesca, a pair of book lovers brought together by wonderful serendipity, decide to do is form a secret committee of France’s best writers and have them each make a list of six hundred of their favorite books. Once those lists are compiled and minor holes in the list are filled in, Ivan and Francesca set about creating their dream bookstore. Once it’s open, readers flock into the shop to happily spend hours browsing through books, looking for new favorites, and feeling like they can finally breathe within a bookstore’s walls. They’re being treated to the best of the best, instead of the newest bestselling thriller they’re not interested in.
Human nature being what it is, though, jealousy and pettiness get inflamed out of proportion, and an online campaign gains steam to discredit Ivan, Francesca, and the dream that is The Good Novel. The hate that’s leveled against them feels so real, in part because real cultural institutions are constantly attacked for being ‘elitist’. PBS and NPR are treated like they’re only for the wealthy, though access to them is open to everyone. Critics who say things like, ‘Maybe Netflix’s show, The Crown is better than the latest incarnation of The Real Housewives‘ too often are mocked for their tastes.
But one of the things that A Novel Bookstore points out is that culture and taste are not zero sum games. We’re always free to like what we want. There are many bookstores in Paris where The Good Novel’s customers can buy the latest bestseller, and if a customer wants to order said bestseller, The Good Novel would be happy to order it for them. No one complains if a bookstore sells only science fiction, Francesca and Ivan think, so why should anyone complain that they only sell good novels?
A Novel Bookstore is one of those books that is both too long and too short. Too long because I wanted to find out who was behind the attacks, and too short because I wanted to keep dwelling in a version of Paris that has a bookstore like The Good Novel. I adored Francesca and her desire to provide a place for people who love books to gather and talk about literature, and Ivan was charming in his awkwardness and endless love for the written word. I read the last hundred pages while sitting in a busy coffee chop, but after a few pages I didn’t notice the raucous laughter from the next table or the thunder and rain going on outside. I was lost in Laurence Cossé’s version of literary Paris.