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.