The gentle tone of this understated novel belies its passion. The passion lies not in the wistful but tepid love affairs of its principal characters, Ivan and Francesca, nor in the acts of spite and revenge committed by anonymous villains. Its passion centers on a devotion to literature, on a celebration of the novel in its purest and finest form.
Francesca, the lonely and elegant wife of a Parisian captain of industry, and Ivan, an erstwhile adventurer and seller of comic books and classic novels, combine forces to open a bookstore in the heart of Paris that has one simple goal: to sell only good novels. They form a secret committee of eight celebrated writers, asking each to submit a list of six hundred titles. These, along with their own choices, form the inventory that fills the shelves of their dream book boutique, The Good Novel.
Little do Francesca and Ivan anticipate or understand the firestorm of derision, envy and loathing they unleash within the publishing industry and literati by opening a bookstore that narrowly and exclusively defines what is a Good Novel. Though The Good Novel quickly builds a worldwide following of admirers and subscribers, its owners become the target of vituperative editorials by untraceable academics and libelous slams by internet prowlers. Members of the secret selection committee become targets of attacks that veer perilously close to attempted murder. The thread of the novel follows loosely the path of investigation into these threats by a sympathetic, erudite detective inspector.
My enthusiasm for A Novel Bookstore is less for the confectionery characters and a playfully surreal plot (though it is hard to resist Cossé’s delight in unspooling this tale; it reads in the same refined and distant manner as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which must be the signature style of translator Alison Anderson). Rather, it is for the way its passionate intent makes me feel and think. I reflected on the power and beauty of the novel and, even more importantly, on what is truly worthy of my reading time. In their well-lighted space with its strategically placed sofas, Francesca and Ivan want nothing more than to offer their customers the opportunity to discover literature written with integrity, passion and truth.
Francesca uses an open letter in a respected Parisian daily newspaper to respond to the attacks from writers whose works were deliberately excluded, from literary prize committees that have long assumed the role of arbiter of novels, and from the powerful publishing agencies that serve as cultural gatekeepers. Her cri de cœur articulates beautifully the vision of The Good Novel:
“…masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to thing that they have the power to radiate all by themselves.
We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic…the risk of failure that he has taken.
We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it… We want good novels.
We want books that leave nothing out: neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs.
And even if there is only one such book per decade… that would be enough. We want nothing else.”
The imaginary bookstore has a real presence on the web: www.thegoodnovel.com You can peruse some of what’s on offer and imagine what your dream bookstore would carry. Alas, amidst the Austen and Twain, my shop would feature sections overflowing with tomes on food and wine, heaps of travel literature and guides. Feel free to curl up in an overstuffed wing chair near the 18th century Europeans and lose yourself for an afternoon…