Review: 13, rue Thérèse, by Elena Mauli Shapiro

When author Elena Shapiro was a little girl, she was given a box of mementos that belonged to Louise Brunet, a woman in her apartment building.  Louise had recently died, so Shapiro had no way to learn about the mementos or their owner.  The contents of the box fascinated her and she turned them loose in her imagination.  Years later she wrote a novel that tells Louise’s story through the trinkets found in the box.

Louise grew up in wartime France; her father, brother and a cousin/boyfriend served at the front in World War I.  She married Henri Brunet, a quiet and unassuming man who worked in her father’s jewelry shop.  Unable to have children, Louise became resentful and bored.  She derived satisfaction from teaching piano to Garance, a very talented 15-year-old girl.  And Louise had a mischievous side, combating boredom by gleefully making up outlandish, erotic stories to shock priests in the confessional.  When a new family moved into her building at 13, rue Thérèse in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, Louise was attracted t0 the husband Xavier, and envious of his happy marriage and children. Louise’s story is an emotional one; she experienced loss not uncommon for that time period, but searingly painful nonetheless.

But there’s another story wrapped around that of Louise.  In the present day, American professor Trevor Stratton is working in Paris and finds a box of mementos (his secretary Josianne left it for him, but he doesn’t know that).  There are love letters from a young man, gloves, coins, photos, jewelry, and a handkerchief.  As he pores through the box, his imagination runs away much as Shapiro’s must have done.  He begins constructing Louise’s story, but it’s often unclear when the story is true to the contents of the box, and when it reflects Trevor’s imagination or even fantasy.  What develops is a story within a story intertwining past and present in a most intriguing way.  What really happened to Louise?  What has Trevor made up, perhaps to satisfy his own longings?  His findings are reported in letters to “Sir,” who I presumed to be his superior, perhaps back at the American university.  But he poured out his feelings so candidly and completely, I could not imagine such letters written in a professional context.   When the relationships between Trevor, “Sir,” and Josianne became somewhat clearer, the “story within a story” aspect of this novel turned out to be even more complex than I’d thought.

This book left me with lots of unanswered questions about Trevor and Louise which, like the box of mementos, are now left to run amok in my imagination.


Review: The Winter Ghosts, by Kate Mosse

Let me see if I have this straight.  Freddie, a young man in his late 20s, never recovered from his brother’s death in World War I ten years earlier.  Recently released from a sanatorium, he goes motoring around France in search of … something.  He is suicidal one minute, inexplicably pulls himself together, and not much later is on the brink of despair again.  Then suddenly he’s caught in a blizzard and has a horrific car wreck in which he almost goes off a cliff.  He hits his head on the windshield, which shatters in his lap, and he’s left bleeding and unconscious.  But when he comes to, he dusts himself off and manages to walk several miles down a remote, unmarked path to a village and finds a room for the night.  A hot bath proves just the ticket, as Freddie is rejuvenated and feels his grief subside, seemingly for the first time since his brother’s death.  WHAT?

And that’s just the first 85 pages.  This book was completely improbable and poorly constructed.  Freddie’s grief was melodramatic and not at all convincing.  The beginning of the story should have been believable, but wasn’t.  The rest of the book was intended to be fanciful, but instead was predictable.  And the writing … ugh.  This advance review copy included the usual disclaimer:  in quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, please refer to the final printed book, as the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. But I can’t help myself.  The Winter Ghosts should be entered in the Bulwer-Lytton (“dark and stormy night”) fiction contest, for gems like this:

Ironically, in light of my parents’ antipathy to my penchant for reading it was a book that did it for me in the end”

Or perhaps this:

Then, one day, it happened.  The soldiers came for us.

[End of Chapter]

My heart hit my boots.

On a more positive note, this book was only 260 pages long and I was able to skim through it in about a day.  🙂

Review: Trespass, by Rose Tremain

In her latest book, Rose Tremain explores all facets of its one-word title:

trespass (noun)

1. Law

a. an unlawful act causing injury to the person, property, or rights of another, committed with force or violence, actual or implied.
b. a wrongful entry upon the lands of another.
c. the action to recover damages for such an injury.
2. an encroachment or intrusion.
3. an offense, sin, or wrong.

Trespass revolves around two brother/sister pairs.  Anthony Verey is an English antiques dealer whose business is failing.  To escape the stress he decides to visit his sister Veronica and her partner Kitty at their home in France.  The beautiful country setting inspires him to give up his business and relocate to a dream house in France.  He begins searching for the perfect house, and finds one in Aramon Lunel’s mas (farmstead).  Aramon inherited the property from his father, but has allowed it to fall into disrepair.  His sister Audrun lives in her own bungalow on adjacent land, and is less than pleased with Aramon’s desire to become rich by selling the mas.

But Anthony’s interest in the mas is only the most obvious trespass.  Tremain weaves a complex web of trespasses from parental abandonment to lovers’ quarrels to incest to violent crime, with disastrous cumulative effects.  The violent crime introduces a bit of mystery to the novel, but one that is pretty easy to figure out.  At first this annoyed me, but then I realized “whodunit” was not the point.  Rather, Tremain shows how childhood experiences shape the adult, and how trespasses — even minor ones — build over a lifetime, potentially into a pretty volatile brew.

This is a dark story, and with all that trespassing going on the characters are not particularly endearing.  But it makes for thought-provoking, worthwhile reading.

Review: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

From the opening sentence, I knew there was something different about this book:  We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. I was instantly intrigued and wary.  Why would a mother and her two young sons want to leave home unnoticed?  The bus takes them to a seaside town, to fulfill the mother’s wish that her boys see the ocean.  The nameless mother provides the narrative, and the more I lived inside her head, the greater my fear and trepidation.  It’s clear she loves her sons, and wants to preserve their childhood as long as possible:

he jumps onto my bed and asks me to give him a farty  kiss, that’s a big kiss on his tummy which makes a lot of noise and it makes him laugh so much you wouldn’t believe it, it’s like he’s laughing to hear himself laugh, that he’s making the most of that laughter, having fun with it, and I know that a laugh like that runs away the minute you grow up.  (p. 32)

But little by little, the story reveals a troubled soul.  The holiday is stressful in the way holidays with young children can be.  The weather is horrible, and she must deal with two little boys, cooped up in a sixth-floor hotel room accessible only by stairs.  But she is also overcome by anxiety and paranoia.  Having scraped together all the spare change in the house to spend on treats, she is convinced local merchants are looking down on her for paying with coins instead of notes.  Eventually her anxiety gets the better of her, and she escapes into sleep, leaving the boys to fend for themselves in the hotel room:

I left everything, left that town and myself along with it: my body was weightless, painless, I sank into something soft and I shed my fear and anger, and my shame too. I went to a world where there’s a place kept for me.  Not asleep and not awake, I’m a feather. Not asleep and not awake, but I come undone, I sprawl out look a cotton reel unwinding. Why did I topple over the edge then? Why did I start to dream? (p. 59)

The young family’s loneliness and desperation was so sad, and I was completely immersed in the mother’s unraveling.   But I still gasped out loud when the novella reached its inevitable climax.  This is a beautifully written story, but one that will haunt me for quite some time.

This book was a “new and notable” selection in Belletrista Issue 3

Other reviews of Beside the Sea:

* FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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Classics Circuit Review: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola

Bienvenue á Paris!

Welcome to Paris in the Springtime, on The Classics Circuit!  Émile Zola is our featured author.  Several of us are reading Thérèse Raquin, Zola’s first major work.  Wikipedia describes this book as the tragic story of a young unhappily married woman and her ill-fated affair.  Published in 1867, Zola’s goal was to “study temperaments and not characters”, and he did so with a very detached, scientific approach.  I thought this book would be a good introduction to Zola.  I guess a lot of others did, too, because there are eight people reviewing Thérèse Raquin for this tour.  This is review #5 and while I have linked to previous reviews below, I was careful not to read any of them until I’d finished the book and formed my own opinions.

Thérèse Raquin was pretty well-received by Classics Circuit participants.  I’ll say more about that after my review.


In the preface to Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola wrote,

In a word, I wanted only one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of those two beings.  I have merely performed on two living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones. (p 4)

The book was written in 1867, when psychology and behavioral studies focused largely on the idea of  “temperament.”   Zola chose to examine how two individuals of different temperament would respond to a set of circumstances.  Enter Thérèse, a young woman abandoned by her natural father, raised by her aunt (Madame Raquin), and married to her sickly cousin Camille.  She worked as an assistant in her aunt’s Paris haberdashery, and helped care for Camille.  Life was dull, even stifling.  Camille worked in a railway company office, and soon established a regular Thursday evening dinner with colleagues at his home.  One of the guests, Laurent, was young and virile, and Thérèse was instantly attracted to him.  The feeling was mutual, and they quickly found themselves entangled in a passionate affair.

From this point Zola explored what two people of such temperaments might do to satisfy their desires.  As Thérèse & Laurent’s passions escalated, their actions became more rash, culminating in an unthinkable act.  Zola meticulously dissected the couple’s thoughts and actions, and the impact of the act on their relationship.  Things turned quite dark at this point; the claustrophobia and fear were palpable.  There was never any doubt in my mind how the story would end, and yet there was still an element of suspense.

Zola’s writing style is detached and analytical — like a news reporter or scientist, reporting the facts without judgment — but he also brought 1860s Paris to life, with settings modeled on popular paintings of the day.  Despite the detached style, Thérèse Raquin was an excellent character study.  I actually found Madame Raquin’s character most intriguing.  She’s somewhat of a passive bystander, and yet as the situation escalates her passivity takes on a level of importance that I did not anticipate.   This book was so well-written that I was quickly hooked.


Four other reviews of Thérèse Raquin have been published so far:

I was a little worried that Classics Circuit readers would tire of hearing about dear Thérèse.  But each of these reviews addresses different aspects of the book.  Some are more focused on plot, and others on style.  Taken as a whole, readers gain a comprehensive understanding of this work.  It was almost like being in a book group, sharing so many different perspectives.  And surprisingly, everyone liked this book!  Bibliolatry wrote, “I was shocked by how graphic and disturbing this short novel was” — a sentiment expressed in different ways by each reviewer.  We liked the suspense, the intrigue, and even the unusual “Naturalist” style so characteristic of Zola’s writing.

But wait!  There’s more!  Thérèse will make three more appearances during this tour:  

I’m curious to see whether their opinions will be markedly different from those expressed so far.  But even if they aren’t, I’m sure each blogger will bring their own unique point of view, and I am looking forward to reading their thoughts.

To learn about Zola’s entire body of work, check out all of the tour stops.  À bientôt!
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