The Alex Rider series would not grace the shelves of The Good Novel Bookstore, which is at the center of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (2009; translation from French 2010). Rather, this idealistic bookstore stocks only “good novels,” perhaps even only “great novels.” How is the stock of books chosen for such an elite bookstore? An “elected” committee of eight submit their top 600 novels—all available in French. And who elected this committee? The two originators of the bookstore concept—Ivan “Van” and Francesca—he with bookstore experience, she with the financial backing.
But wait. We don’t know about the bookstore at all from the novel’s beginnings. Instead, we start with the attempted murders of three seemingly disparate individuals. But then we find that each is a member of the “eight,” the secret committee that passes judgment on what is a “good” novel. As it turns out, the concept of such a bookstore is a major threat to mediocre writers, to their publishers, and to the bookstores that focus on “everything under the sun.” It’s difficult to believe that one bookstore would have such an effect, but several do feel threatened and resort to letters to the editors about elitism and totalitarianism—as well as to physical attacks on the committee members.
Perhaps this does not sound like the makings of a “good read,” but A Novel Bookstore is definitely intriguing and includes not only a social commentary on the public’s reading choices but also the mystery of who’s behind the brutish attacks on seemingly ordinary citizens and also a romance (or two). The two primary characters, Ivan and Francesca, meet at the Meribel ski resort, where he has managed to create a small but select bookstore at a local Tabac, which, in turns, attracts a certain clientele, that tends to lose itself in the selections on the shelves. One of these is Francesca, who recognizes a very well read genius behind the choices. Thoughtfully, they become partners and launch The Good Novel. In the meantime, Van has become besotted with a young woman, Anis, who provides the third major character in the narrative. (The reader will have to decide if she is cheering for Francesca or Anis as Van’s romantic interest.)
A fourth important character is police detective Heffner, who comes on the scene when Van and Francesca learn that three of their committee members have been attacked and know that the other five may be in harm’s way. They convince him to take on the investigation. As in the film The Usual Suspects in which the character of “Verbal” (Kevin Spacey) lays out a tale for the detective (Chazz Palminteri), Van and Francesca lay out much of the plot of the novel in about one-half of the 400 pages by telling what has happened to Detective Heffner. (It’s fortunate that Francesca has a nephew in the police force who can sleuth out a staff member who is known for his literary taste—and thus perfect to take on the investigation.) This flashback mechanism allows for Cossé to advance her plot while filling in the background details.
Who is behind the attacks? And why does a bookstore that sells only “good” novels engender such hate. This is a commentary in part on the contemporary world of publishing—as one publisher says in response to a critique that a recent book is just awful, “that’s not the point.” It’s about profit margins and perhaps catering to a non-discriminating reading audience.
A Novel Bookstore is not only a thoughtful read, but also an enjoyable one. Although it trails off a bit at the end, I recommend it.
A note about the publishing of this novel. First, this is a French novel, and, frankly, I often do not choose to read literature in translation. Native writers may not look at the country in the same way as an outsider, may not reveal the country’s character in the way that an outsider might. But I was intrigued by the description of this novel in a catalog that I truly love: Bas Bleu Books. (Bas Bleu stands for “bluestocking,” historically a women’s literary group in London.) I recommend its catalog for interesting and good reads—as well as for the occasional Nancy Drew t-shirt. (Nancy is an octogenarian as of 2010 but still solving mysteries!) But, I’m also intrigued by the publisher of A Novel Bookstore’s translation, Europa Editions. As a person who looks for books set in particular countries, I was pleased to see a list at the back of this book that specified settings such as the Italian noir work of Massimo Carlotto. It looks to be a terrific source for Road Works. As is the list of books that are included in The Good Novel Bookstore. (To check out the online presence of this fictional “bookstore,” see www.thegoodnovel.com.)