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Review of The Little Paris Bookshop

In The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, Monsieur Jean Perdu promises to give Catherine, a new neighbor in his Paris apartment building, a table, which happens to contain a letter from his dead lover, Manon. She left it for him twenty-one years ago, having left in the night after making love to him. Perdu felt so rejected at the time that he did not bother to open it, but just tossed it in the table drawer. Catherine finds it now and gives in to Perdu, who after initially telling her to burn it, decides to read it. He is shocked to find that she was scared of dying from cancer, and by leaving she merely “wanted to do what love thought right, and doesn’t it say do what is good for the other person? I thought it would be good if you forgot me in your rage. If you don’t grieve, don’t worry; don’t know anything about my death. Cut, anger, over—and move on.” But in the letter, Manon explains she had second thoughts and wants him to come to her to talk things over. But since Perdu never opened the letter in his anger, he never went to see her, and she died thinking he perhaps did not have “strong enough” feelings for her. The irony is he has spent the next twenty-one years longing for her, despondent at his loss. He realizes now that “‘She died, but all I could think of was how mean she’d been to me. I was a stupid man.’” He tells himself, “You denied Manon exactly the thing you long for: you refused to remember her, to speak her name, to think of her every day with affection and love. Instead you banished her. Shame on you.”

Throughout the course of the novel, Perdu goes on an adventure, traveling down the river from Paris on his book barge, The Literary Apothecary. His career for the past twenty years has been to “prescribe” from his barge books for people, “the only remedy for countless, undefined afflictions of the soul.” He and his customers love to read; as Catherine puts it, “‘I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole nonreading life.’” But now that Perdu has read Manon’s letter, he wants to seek closure to his relationship with her, so he cuts his barge free of the dock and sets off down the river. During the journey, he meets various companions from whom he learns about various realities and philosophies of love.

In the end, Perdu makes several realizations about love. The main one is that he learns “everything is within us. And nothing dies away.” He tells his friend Cuneo, “‘To carry [the dead] within us—that is our task. We carry them all inside us, all our dead and shattered loves. Only they make us whole. If we begin to forget or cast aside those we’ve lost, then…then we are no longer present either.’” Likewise, Manon had written in her diary that “Death doesn’t matter. It makes no difference to life. We will always remain what we were to one another.” The novel has an underlying message of hope, that we can continue on with our lives and find new loves, even after having stupidly lost love even many years past. All we have to do is keep those we have lost in our minds and hearts, and appreciate what we now are so fortunate to have. Perhaps that is what Perdu gains from his relationship with his new lover, Catherine, the neighbor who gave him Manon’s letter from the table.

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