The Red Notebook (La femme au carnet rouge)
by Antoine Laurain, translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
First published March, 2014 by Gallic Books
From Goodreads: Heroic bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street. There’s nothing in the bag to indicate who it belongs to, although there’s all sorts of other things in it. Laurent feels a strong impulse to find the owner and tries to puzzle together who she might be from the contents of the bag. Especially a red notebook with her jottings, which really makes him want to meet her. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
Are we defined by the things we carry with us every day? If someone were to pick up your bag, would they be able to find you without knowing your name or having any identification available? In The Red Notebook, bookseller Laurent Letellier seeks to answer this very question: whose handbag did he find, and can he find her with just the mementos and the little red notebook she left behind?
It’s an interesting question, and a fun intellectual puzzle. My own bag contains mostly photography equipment, whatever book I’m currently reading, and a tube of lip balm. Not the most helpful stuff when it comes to identifying a specific person, but what’s left behind could tell someone a lot about me without giving away my name or address. The woman whose handbag Laurent finds has far more personal items in her bag than lip balm, a novel, and four camera batteries. After being thwarted in his attempt to turn the bag in to the police or other official lost and found, Laurent takes it home and looks inside. There, he finds intimate little objects: an ornate mirror, a hair clip, and the titular red notebook filled with reminders, descriptions of dreams, and random thoughts that give Laurent a glimpse into the mystery woman’s life. The more he finds in the bag, the more he wants to find the woman it belongs to.
This fascination is not without consequences, though. People in his life jump to conclusions without bothering to listen to Laurent’s reasoning. Or, worse, they assume Laurent is lying when he explains the situation to them. These responses drive him to simply shut up about the whole incident while quietly continuing his investigation. He can’t properly explain it to himself, let alone to someone who doesn’t want to listen. There’s just something about this woman and her possessions that’s gotten under his skin, and he can’t let go until he finds her.
While the answers to many of the clues revolve around Laurent’s profession of ‘bookseller’, giving the story some deus ex machina undertones, I found the whole thing charming enough to overlook it. This isn’t a story about what would actually happen if a man found a random woman’s handbag. It’s about finding people– the people who understand you the best, and the people who bother to look beyond what’s skin deep. It’s a concisely told story that doesn’t add needless fluff, and the translated prose is quietly elegant.
I did have some issues with the story’s formatting. The narrative frequently shifts from one point of view to another without indicating who it has shifted to. I often had to go back to the beginning of the chapter to to understand what was going on once I’d figured out whose perspective I was reading about. I don’t know if this is a part of the original French version or if something changed in translation, but I found it frustrating. But on the whole, I enjoyed The Red Notebook. It is a sweet story about identity and love told in a way that only the French could tell it.