Over the past few months I’ve noticed that some of my very favourite bloggers seem to lament having to write negative reviews when they have the misfortune to read something they haven’t really enjoyed. I never really understood the dilemma and used to simply think ‘aw, what sweet people they just don’t want to cause offense’ and really didn’t see that I would have any problems when my time eventually came to criticise…
Oh how wrong I was…. I was really, really looking forward to reading this book and was, I’m sad to say, sorely disappointed. It does make me cringe to type something like that about a current writer’s work as the mere fact that someone has put thought and time into writing a novel in the first place is something I have a great deal of admiration and respect for. That said, I will be as honest as I can bear to be here…
This initially sounded like such a good idea for a novel. As a young girl, Shapiro herself lived at 13 rue Thérèse; a quite little street off the rue de Richelieu in Paris that I know and love to stroll down myself. First big tick in the Lucy listofthingsthatIliketoread box. Whilst living there an elderly neighbour; Mme Louise Brunet, passed away, leaving no relatives but plenty of opportunists behind to pick up her personal effects, including a small box of keepsakes that Shapiro’s mother thoughtfully salvaged from the clear-out. This book lays out the contents of that box and the remains of a life that was no doubt, judging by the love letters, photographs and others tokens left behind, full of excitement and intrigue….and here is where we take up our story. Examining the artifacts one by one our author makes a valiant attempt to fill in the gaps, sometimes realistically and sometimes with wild leaps of the imagination, creating a completely, well, unbelievable (not in a positive way) character who quite often sounded more like I do than I imagine your average 1920s Parisian housewife would have done.
Ahem. In order to add an extra level to the life she has conjured up for this woman, Shapiro creates a contemporary character; American academic Trevor (Trevor???!! A fine name but perhaps more honest Yorkshire farmer than dashing historian) who, upon finding the box in his desk drawer, embarks on a voyage of discovery where we are, I have to admit, treated to the occasional spine chilling moment where the barrier between the past and present seems to disappear entirely. This box has been left by Josianne, a secretary at the University, who, like our author, has made this discovery but, unlike Shapiro, seems to want to use it as a way to get to know Trevor more intimately. But don’t get too excited, because we won’t get to know these modern characters any better than this. Yawn.
1920s Paris makes for an exciting setting. Living between two World Wars, Louise’s life is far from your stereotypical flapper girl as she paces up and down her apartment, grieving for the people she has lost, the children she feels she will never have and lusting for the man downstairs. (Another dashing academic called Xavier – a much sexier name, don’t you think?) Although I found the dialogue/inner monologues, etc far too modern to be convincing, I did find certain little gems in this book that brought a smile to my face, such as the Louise’s ways of relieving her chronic boredom – e.g. inventing luder and cruder tales to tell her Priest to see how far she can push him when she goes to confession every week. I also love a good mystery and used to work as an archivist, therefore the fact that she included copies of everything she finds in the box helped to enliven the story a little.
But, and this is a BIG but…I found the writing to be a little self-indulgent and pretty darn cheesy at times. Perhaps I’m far too cynical and English for this kind of thing but one to many star/heart/flesh motifs can make a girl want to gag. I’m wondering whether the style of this book could have been a little more palatable had it been written in French, a language that can often make the corniest of catchphrases sound like pure magic. Perhaps. But this book isn’t written in French and I didn’t like it. Sorry Elena Shapiro. I’m sure many people love your work but I’m far too much of a miserable git to appreciate it.
NB. This might, again, be reading too much into things, but I was slightly perturbed that this anonymous, but very real woman, whose picture appears in this book, has a story that paints her in basically any light the writer wants. This light includes some rather questionable storylines and I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea that this was all being reflected onto a real-life individual who has no-one left alive to speak for her. If she is looking down from her cloud right now, what could she possibly be thinking I wonder?