I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been developing a bit of a thing for “bibliomysteries.” I first became aware of the genre during a Rare Book class that I took during my first semester at library school, when I read and really enjoyed the first in John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway series, Booked to Die. I recently reviewed Amanda Flower’s Maid of Murder and enjoyed High Lonesome Road by Betsy Thornton (about the murder of a bookmobile driver in Arizona). And there are several biblio-themed selections on my ever-growing to-read list: the Danish novel The Library of Shadows and Real Murders by Charlaine Harris (who, I somewhat belatedly found out writes the Southern Vampire series with Sookie Stackhouse) among others.
It’s only natural then that when I found out about the upcoming translation of A Novel Bookstore by French author Laurence Cossé, that I would jump on it. A book about a bookstore of discriminating taste in France whose super-secret selection committee starts getting violently targeted for asserting their literary taste? Sounds awesome, right?
Well, it is in a lot of ways, although it’s not really a crime novel in the traditional sense–Cossé does not place so much importance on the development of the investigation, for instance. I genuinely loved about 3/4 of the book–even when I disagreed with particular declarations of certain novels’ literary greatness–but toward the end, it became a bit murkier for me. Rather than hash all that out here, however, I’ll just let the review speak for itself. You can read the original on the Three Percent website, or the full text is below.
You may also want to check out the website that Cossé set up for the book–nicely immersive and set up as if it is the website of the bookstore in the novel.
“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.
The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”
While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.
Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.
As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.
It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”