Translated from German by Simon Pare.
Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by libraries in Hungary and USA
It’s not often that I allow my dislike of a main character to interfere with my enjoyment of a novel, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule. So here we go. I took a strong dislike to Manon and not even her tragic fate redeemed her. It proved an insurmountable hurdle for a novel that pivots on the love of its main protagonist for this woman. But let me start at the beginning.
NOTE: This review will contain mild spoilers, so reader beware!
Jean Perdu is the owner of the little Paris bookshop in question, a book barge. Actually it’s not a bookshop; it’s a literary apothecary, because Perdu will not sell a book to a customer unless it is right for that person, and, he can, just by looking at a person, prescribe the correct bookish medicine. Like many doctors, however, he’s not good at self-medication. His problem? His lover of five years, the afore-mentioned Manon, left him suddenly without a word. Some months after her disappearance, she sent a letter, which Perdu threw into a drawer and never opened. For the next 21 years, Jean Perdu is a lost soul, locked away emotionally and cut-off from the joys of life.
The arrival of the recently divorced Catherine into his apartment block leads to the letter resurfacing and his eventually reading it. What he reads devastates him further. The letter is a plea from Manon to her lover to come to her – she is dying.
And so 21 years too late, he unmoors his boat and sets off for Provence to visit Manon’s grave and ask for redemption. The complication is that he is going to have to visit her husband, Luc, who knew of Perdu’s existence, and married her nevertheless. Both men were seemingly accepting that one man was not enough for the love of their respective lives. (Really? Not in my world. Besides, at one moment, I’m asked to accept that Manon is the most wonderful lover in the world. The next she’s leaving again to return to the other man, knowing the hurt she is inflicting. How selfish is that? You see my problem with her?)
The journey he undertakes is a heart-warming adventure back into the land of the living. Accompanied by the young author, Max Jordan, who is struggling with a severe case of second novel syndrome, the people he meets along the way provide moments of scintillating literary discussion, high comedy, deep empathy, and generally breathe life and love back into the emotional corpse. In stages – as illuminated by Hermann Hesse’s poem of the same name.
The text is both emotional and sensual, and, putting aside the issues I have with the love triangle and the general sainthood of Luc Bisset, Manon’s husband, in places quite touching. But, in others, overblown. Particularly that redemption scene. For incurable romantic mystics. Not for me.