A Novel Bookstore

Fans of quality literature and--perhaps more particularly--quality bookstores will undoubtedly be enchanted by Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore. Within its pages, Cossé has created her (and many others') ideal bookstore, entwining its creation with a strange mystery, made more mysterious by the intricate workings of life, love, and what goes in to selecting great novels.

The story opens upon confusing and strange circumstances, where individuals connected in some as-yet-unknown-to-the-reader way have suffered minor attacks upon their persons. The aim appears to have been not to take their lives, but to shatter a piece of what defines them. Eventually, we find our way to the more linear understanding of the novel: a rather unique bookstore sells only good novels and a secret committee of selectors (so secret that even they do not know the other members on the committee) is responsible for submitting titles that comprise the stock. With extensive advertising efforts, the bookstore appears to be quite a success -- until a series of vicious attacks in print, online, and finally on the supposedly-secret committee members shows that clearly not everyone is thrilled with a bookstore that seems to define "good" novels.

Ivan "Van" Georg is a man who does not appear to have made all that much of his life, but he does know good literature... and those who value literature are drawn to him, appreciating his recommendations and the ability to speak with a kindred spirit. After striking up some conversations with a wealthy customer, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, Van is suddenly enlisted to assist her on an endeavor to open "The Good Novel," a Parisian bookstore where only good novels will be sold. Together, Francesca and Van go about laying plans for the dream bookstore -- lush, elegant and selective, while still fostering a strong sense of community at the store and online. Francesca and Van select eight modern writers as secret committee members and each person is charged with writing down a list of 600 novels. Each year, they will be asked to submit additional titles so that new books might also have a shot at entering the store's stock. These will be the only titles stocked at The Good Novel; though in return, the secret committee members are sworn to silence regarding their involvement.

Francesca goes above and beyond in advertising for the bookstore and immediately it seems to be a hit. Then the grumblings come, which lead to greater issues. Opinion pieces in newspapers asking what right anyone has to exclude certain works from a store. Customers ordering books that the Good Novel does not stock, then failing to pick up the order so the bookstore has to eat the cost. Counter-ads from other bookstores that insist they have books for everyone, not just the elite. Questions buzzing about just who is funding this endeavor. It's hard enough to run a bookstore in the current climate without such bad press (though this buzz doesn't necessarily hurt the sales at the bookstore at first), but then the attacks upon the secret committee members happen. Van and Francesca decide that it's time to come clean with the committee list, go to the police, and recount the whole story. Mixed in to the history of the bookstore (and, indeed, perhaps creating the more emotional, meatier heart of the novel) are the secret histories of Francesca and Van... Francesca cherishing deep grief and hopeless love; Van stumbling in life and passionate about a girl he barely knows.

Readers intrigued thus far should hold firm to that interest, for the beginning is a bit dense. I felt a bit daunted by the sudden onslaught of events, French names, and multitude of characters. I even started writing down a character list -- after all, when the authors go by code names to submit their selections and Cossé feels free to refer to them by either name (and they're all vaguely Frenchy), it can get confusing. About fifty pages in, I finally felt like I had my sea legs and never experienced much confusion after that. If anything, the whole mystery is laid out in a rather clear fashion, so it's quite a pleasant ride... until it somewhat peters out. There are many excellent parts to this novel and the entire middle section is a delight... both on the page and off, for it rather stirs within the reader a number of questions about selectivity and the books we feast upon. As a result, it's almost a shame when the ending doesn't have some large finish, but rather a quiet finale... letting us know that being a mystery was perhaps not its main goal. One hopes that Cossé simply wanted readers to think about their book selections and to wonder the same things she wondered... as the reader certainly isn't treated to a grand reveal or any kind of "justice."

When it concerns a bookshop, of course, I suppose the best we can all hope for in today's day and age is simply that it stays in business. It's a charming read, quite a credit to Europa Press, which is developing quite an impressive collection of titles. In my local bookstore, this publisher has a spot of honor... and, indeed, any publisher that puts forth an ode to bookstore like this certainly would seem to merit it. I highly encourage all and sundry to read A Novel Bookstore, but be prepared to simply appreciate the random complications for their own sake and not expect too much of the mystery itself. Van and Francesca are, after all, quite sufficient at holding one's interest as we learn more about their lives and driving forces. It's a bittersweet tale at the end, but real book lovers know that bittersweet is by no means a bad thing.

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