Guess what? This book was translated into English! What a pleasant surprise that was, because it means that I can count it for one of my reading challenge categories. My reaction upon realizing this (though I'd been planning on reading the book anyway) can be summed up thusly: "O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" I chortled in my joy.
The Little Paris Bookshop is the story of Jean Perdu. He owns a floating bookshop upon a barge moored in the Seine in Paris, which he calls The Literary Apothecary. He prescribes books for all of life's woes and aspires to write a sort of encyclopedia of feelings that haven't really been pinned down in most works yet. He has a routine and sticks to it like clockwork, something he has done ever since the woman he loved left him two decades ago. When a new neighbor moves into the flat across from him, he gives her a table--a table he has to haul out from a room that's been walled up ever since said lover left. And in the table, the new neighbor finds a letter that's never been read. The neighbor and the letter are a pair of catalysts that have Jean casting off from his mooring and starting off on a journey to the south of France aboard his floating bookshop, along with a famous author facing a serious case of second-book writer's block and, eventually, an Italian chef looking for a woman he loved and lost. Along the way they explore the canals of France, go to a secret tango society, rescue a woman from drowning, and look for the pseudonym-ed author of Jean's favorite book.
Even in translation, there was some beautiful writing in this book. The descriptions of the settings in particular were wonderfully vivid and I could just see the canals, the locks, the flowers in my mind. I think the supporting characters added just the right amount of flavor to the story, though their losses and longings are really side notes to the main story. There are also a few chapters which are excerpts from Jean's former lover's travel diary, which help to explain what was going on with her, and why she did what she did, long before Jean gets the full story. I found those a bit long and sappy for my taste, but I can see why they were included. Maybe Manon herself just didn't agree with me; her actions in how she conducted her relationships aren't really something that I'm on the same page with, which made her hard for me to empathize with in that regard, though other parts of her story were routine enough.
Honestly, Manon's reason for leaving Jean was the part of the story I liked the least, just because it seems so...done. I didn't find anything particularly interesting about it, and honestly felt like she'd played the whole thing up more than she had to. This spills over into the rest of the story, because Jean has been tied up in all of this drama for twenty years, which honestly...I mean... Ugh.
So, I think the writing and descriptions here are the real strength, and the central story was not. George has a way of making her locations just come to life in a way that I don't think many authors can, and I really enjoyed that. The central plot didn't do much for me, though. The side plot--about finding the author of Jean's favorite book--was much more intriguing. The problem for me is, the central story is one that's about grieving and moving on, and I'm not really at a point in my life where I can empathize with that. Sympathize, yes. But empathize? Not really. Jean Perdu believes that each person needs different books at different times throughout life, and maybe this just wasn't the right time for me to read this one, though I definitely do appreciate the skill that George put into it.
3 stars out of 5.