K's Reviews > A Novel Bookstore

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé
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F 50x66
's review
Mar 09, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: mysteriesthrillers, should-ve-been-shorter
Recommended to K by: M
Read from March 09 to 16, 2012

What do French novels and Seinfeld have in common?

Well, if I got your attention with that question, my first answer is a disclaimer -- I have limited exposure to both and probably shouldn't be making judgments. But I won't let that stop me from offering my second answer, which is that both seem to create a great deal of drama around a nothing premise.

Maybe "nothing premise" isn't really fair or accurate. There was a premise here. "A Novel Bookstore" is yet another addition to the books-are-awesome-and-change-lives genre. (As a little aside, I must once again reference Daniel's review where he asks why books feel this constant need to justify their existence, particularly when they're clearly preaching to the choir -- if you're choosing to spend your limited leisure time reading this book, you probably already think books are pretty awesome.)

Having said that, this is arguably one of the better examples of this genre. A wealthy heiress and off-the-beaten-path bookseller collaborate to open a bookstore which is clearly meant to shove it in the face of all those mega-bookstores out there -- instead of a large multi-story complex, this small bookstore is highly selective and only includes "good novels" -- those nominated by a secret committee of high-brow authors.

And here's the rub -- the members of the committee are top secret! Oh, if this gets out! Whatever shall we do? Well, maybe I just don't get French culture but I couldn't understand why Renee, the concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was so desperate to hide her literary interests and here too, the need for absolute secrecy wasn't at all clear to me. But it created drama, so I guess we'll just have to accept it.

What was even more dramatic was the reaction to this bookstore's initial wild success. Oh, the anger. Oh, the wrath. Again, maybe I just don't get France. Isn't it a free country? Can't anyone open whatever kind of bookstore they want to, selective, mass-market, whatever? Can't people simply vote with their feet if they don't like the bookstore? Why all this intensity?

But what starts as internet flaming eventually culminates on physical attacks on a few of the secret committee members (gasp! How did the secret ever get out?), and now there's a mystery to be solved about who engineered this. There's also a love story which was pretty unimpressive. I hate to say it, but it's kind of ironic when a novel glorifying good novels doesn't manage to be one.

Okay. I'm being a little harsh here. It kept me reading until the end, and I was in fact charmed by the fantasy of a selective bookstore stocked with only good novels (although I have to add here that in my experience, authors actually aren't always the best sources of book recommendations. I wasn't crazy about many of the book's on Stephen King's must-read list, and I also haven't been thrilled with a lot of other author's recommendations). And I think some of my distance could be attributed to the not-particularly-eloquent translation, for which I can't blame the author or the book.

So I'll give this three stars because it had its redeeming features, and probably most goodreaders would appreciate the fantasy of a store which is kind of like goodreads in real time.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by M (new) - rated it 4 stars

M It's interesting to see how much reading ties in with one's personality. This wasn't the best book ever for me, either, and I almost gave it the same rating though I was struggling between three and four whereas it seems you were at the 2-3 point. So my coming to "defend" it is sort of silly since it's not all that by any means, but I just find it interesting how we approach things differently.
First of all, I disagree with this Daniel guy - I never took books about books to be apologetics; rather I see them as love letters, celebrations of a wonderful thing which, if you are a writer, are a big part of why you do what you do and so it makes sense it would be where your heart lies. I especially appreciate these love letters, choir though I am, as reading becomes less and less of a celebrated act as technology Godzillas its way through literary Tokyo, or whatever.
As to the book itself, it transcended its somewhat thin premise when it became, I thought, a rather clever commentary on politics and social issues, and addressing the idea of if there can be a best or if everyone needs to be the best. Using books as a tool to get there was particularly clever because devoted readers feels o very strongly about their books (I cite this site, for one thing, and my responding to a review for another) that of course they would be either completely devoted to the idea of such a store or equally horrified if their book isn't there and therefore suddenly feel that this is a classist and unfair notion.
I don't think France's response is meant to be taken literally (and here's where reading and personalities come into play - while we both prefer realistic tales I think I might be of a more abstract reader in taking something like this in a more whimsical way and you might first and foremost process if it could ever happen/should ever happen)- I enjoyed the response, in fact, because it was underscoring its whole idea of the violent love of literature and people's fragile egos at stake - in fact, the quiet drama of the piece speaks very much to the pretentious charm that is Paris, something I am always happy to forgive as a big Francophile.
Anyway - this is not a right or wrong - it's striking to me though how very differently people read simply due to personality and not (entirely) the book itself at least not in a way that can warrant a book 'good' or 'bad' which is all the more interesting given the whole idea of being able to come to an agreement of what IS a good book in starting such a store. Which I guess just means recommendations are always a tricky thing because it's like buying someone a sweater you liked or having them listen to a song you think is awesome - it's just too dependent on too many personal things within each person.


message 2: by Petra X (new)

Petra X They don't "vote with their feet" any longer, they never left their sofas.


message 3: by rivka (new)

rivka marg wrote: "First of all, I disagree with this Daniel guy - I never took books about books to be apologetics; rather I see them as love letters, celebrations of a wonderful thing which, if you are a writer, are a big part of why you do what you do and so it makes sense it would be where your heart lies. I especially appreciate these love letters, choir though I am, as reading becomes less and less of a celebrated act as technology Godzillas its way through literary Tokyo, or whatever."

I completely agree.


message 4: by Meredith (new)

Meredith I tried to read this several months back, but my heart just wasn't in it. I generally love Europa Edition books and tend to gravitate toward them when I see them, but something fell flat for me with this one.


message 5: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Yay! I love good comments discussions! Thanks so much for weighing in, guys, and especially for being polite about it. I'll try to offer some responses.

Marg: I disagree with this Daniel guy - I never took books about books to be apologetics; rather I see them as love letters, celebrations of a wonderful thing which, if you are a writer, are a big part of why you do what you do and so it makes sense it would be where your heart lies.

In fairness to Daniel, I both paraphrased him and took him out of context so it's possible I did not represent his words the way he would have. Having said that, I love books but I find it a bit repetitive that so many novels out there extol books' virtues, in a way that is arguably exaggerated, and in having this agenda, sometimes go so far as to lose sight of plot, characterization, etc. -- the things that make us want to read in the first place. Here I
want to quote Daniel directly:

"Television shows don't feel a need to keep telling me how fantastic television is, and movies don't keep reminding me that movies are really wonderful, so books don't need to be so defensive either. Just be a really good book, then I'll remember how great literature is." [emphasis mine]

In my opinion, love letters to literature are all fine and well, but not when they are the driving force of the book at the expense of plot and characterization. I also feel that, much as I love books, and much as certain books can be transformative at certain times for certain individuals, the effect of reading is usually quieter and less dramatic than all that.

Marg: As to the book itself, it transcended its somewhat thin premise when it became, I thought, a rather clever commentary on politics and social issues, and addressing the idea of if there can be a best or if everyone needs to be the best.

I agree with this point, and after I posted my review, I realized that I should have addressed it because in fact it was one of the selling points, I felt. We can (and often do) have interesting goodreads discussions about who the arbiters of good taste are, or should be, and the relative merits of snooty vs. popular novels.

Marg: I don't think France's response is meant to be taken literally (and here's where reading and personalities come into play - while we both prefer realistic tales I think I might be of a more abstract reader in taking something like this in a more whimsical way and you might first and foremost process if it could ever happen/should ever happen)...

I hear what you're saying, and I do have trouble suspending my disbelief in fiction. I tend to be picky about that, and to be easily removed from the story if something seems over the top to me. At the same time, I've also found that really great writing and characters can help me forgive unrealistic plot developments. Here that was not the case for me. As you say, that's entirely subjective and has less to do with the objective quality of the book and more to do with where the book meets me.

Elizabeth: I feel like I am being pressured, constantly, to buy books that I won't like, "bad books" as it were, by people who are more interested in making money than producing real, quality products.

I hear what you're saying, Elizabeth. It's true that many books are over-marketed and over-hyped and really not that great, while other books which are far more worthy remain completely neglected. And like you, I sometimes feel ripped off and annoyed when that happens and I love goodreads because I think -- I hope -- that most of the reviewers here have no personal agenda other than to share their experience of the book.

For me, though, I think I'm somewhat immune to the over-marketing of books (and when I fall for it, I usually tend to kick myself rather than blaming the marketers). I'm fine with Walmart and Costco displaying wall-fuls of John Grisham books I wouldn't go near. And like you, I would be thrilled to have a bookstore in my neighborhood like "The Novel Bookstore." I don't think a store like "The Novel Bookstore" would pose a true threat to the Walmarts and Costcos of the world, though. Different people want different things out of books. For every person who wants a gourmet reading experience, there's probably at least one who's just looking for a package of cheez curls and is happy seeking them out at Walmart. And the same person may seek one at one point and one at another point.

It's hard for me to imagine that the major bookstore chains feeling threatened by the smaller, more selective players. I think they simply appeal to different markets, and there's room for both. If anything, I think it may be the other way around -- small, independent bookstores need more support than large chains because the smaller bookstores' market is more limited. If "The Novel Bookstore" had reflected that dynamic, and maybe even had the Novel Bookstore owners contemplated unethical means of promoting their store with some ambiguity around their lofty intentions vs. their desperate means, I probably would have found the story more believable and more interesting.

Agreed re. the sofas, Petra. Maybe I should have said, voted with their computers.


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