Just in the nick of time, here’s my contribution to Paris in July, a month of celebration of all things French organized by BookBath and Thyme For Tea.

The author, Elena Mauli Shapiro, grew up in Paris in the 80s and lived in 13 rue Thérèse. When her upstairs neighbor, Louise Brunet, dies and no friends of family reclaim her belongings, the owner of the building allows the tenants to help themselves. Shapiro’s mother took a box full of mementos, some of them dating back to WWI. This book is the fictionalized life of Louise, based on what’s in the box, including old photographs, letters, coins, pressed flowers and two pairs of communion gloves (look here for all objects).

Louise is a married piano teacher who on the outside is a modest middle-class wife, but has a very active and eccentric mental life. She regularly makes R-rated false confessions of adultery to her priest and sends steamy anonymous letters to her new neighbor. There’s the feeling that all her unrest comes from her desperate wish for a child and her past, her dead first love and her relationship with her father.

On top of that layer, Shapiro adds still another: in the book, Louise’s belongings belong to Josianne, a secretary in a present-day French university who lets Trevor, a new American faculty member “find it”. He then goes through the collection and becomes obsessed with the objects and the story they tell (or is the story that Shapiro tells? Or that Louise tells? Or Josianne?). The book includes photos of all the objects as Trevor focuses on each of them by turn. They become really useful as they anchor what could become a very scattered story.

It’s a very interesting approach to metafiction, but I couldn’t help thinking that such a mysterious (and real!) box of mementoes deserved a purer story. Shapiro’s writing is poetic and fluid, which added to my impression she didn’t need all the gimmicks to make this a compelling story.

Having Trevor tell the story about the sexual awakening of a woman in the 1920s also seems like a strange choice. Trevor uses expressions to describe Louise’s thoughts which are awkward and kept distracting me from the story. Things like “waning menses”, “hysterical womb” and “silent female storm”. Was this on purpose? Shapiro writing what Trevor would think Louise was thinking?

See what I mean? Sometimes simple is better, but on the other hand, it would give less publicity to a first novel…

Louise Brunet in a sidecar.

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Other thoughts: Reading on a Rainy Day (yours?)