A wonderful book, one of the best I’ve read recently. Its protagonist Jean Perdu is a 50-year-old bookseller, the owner of a barge converted into a floating bookshop.
It’s fitting that a story about a bookseller has multiple literary allusions. To start with, it takes place on boat. Three men and [no, not a dog] two cats travel on this boat down the waterways of France from Paris to Provence. Each one is on a personal quest: to find love, to reach absolution, to gain experience, to escape the past. Each one is searching for his story.
Jean Perdu’s story starts and ends with a woman. Two different women bookend his tale, but the story is not about them. It’s about Jean’s emotional journey, his belated maturing, his grief and his growth. The memories of his first love haunt him, driving him to analyze his former decisions, to atone for his betrayal, if he ever hopes to be worthy of his new love.
Despite the touchy topic, the author wouldn’t allow sentimentality to spoil her book. The supporting characters all act as a counterbalance for Jean’s deep digging into his soul. When he gets too lachrymose, another character would say something snarky or totally irrelevant, and the spell would be broken. From the edge of tears to laughter is a very short step, but the author needs courage to take this step. Nina George doesn’t lack courage.
While her hero Jean is mending his broken heart, his everyday life goes on. He sells books. He chats with people. He gets hungry and dreams of a good detergent to get his shirt clean. His boat trip reflects reality to a degree, but on the other hand, it doesn’t resemble reality at all.
Nobody I know, nobody sane in any case, mourns for his lost love for 20 years or denies himself any pleasure of the body for that long. Maybe such people exist somewhere but not in my neighborhood. So this is not a story about a guy next door. It’s a story that morphs into a fable, almost a fairy tale. The story in its entirety reads like a metaphor of living and loving and the inescapable link between the two. One doesn’t exist without the other, and for most men, the trigger and the reason for both is a woman. At least it is so from Jean’s point of view.
His contemplations are often profound and cover many sad topics—aging and fear, inertia and death. I wish I encountered him when I was younger. If I did, maybe I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes in my life. Or maybe I wasn’t ready for his revelations then. He wasn’t as wise when he was young either. He made his own mistakes aplenty. If he didn’t, this book wouldn’t have been written.
Oh, dammit. Nobody would ever wise up if they hadn’t at some stage been young and stupid.
“Fear transforms your body like an inept sculptor does a perfect block of stone,” Perdu heard Vijaya’s voice say inside him. “It’s just that you’re chipped away at from within, and no one sees how many splinters and layers have been taken off you. You become ever thinner and more brittle inside, until even the slightest emotion bowls you over. One hug, and you think you’re going to shatter and be lost.”
If Jordan ever needed a piece of fatherly advice, Perdu would tell him: “Never listen to fear! Fear makes you stupid.”
Habit is a vain and treacherous goddess. She lets nothing disrupt her rule. She smothers one desire after another: the desire to travel, the desire for a better job or a new love. She stops us from living as we would like, because habit prevents us from asking ourselves whether we continue to enjoy doing what we do.
“You know all about death, huh?” She gave a sad smile. “It—the cancer—is called Lupo. That’s the name Elaia gave it when she was nine. Lupo, like the cartoon dog. She imagined that they lived together in her body like housemates. She respects the fact that it sometimes demands more attention. That way, she says, she can rest easier than if she imagines it wants to destroy her. What on earth would destroy its own home?”
Zelda smiled lovingly as she gazed at her daughter. “Lupo’s been living with us for more than twenty years. I get the impression that he is starting to feel old and tired too.”
A wise and moving novel. Recommended to anyone.