A Novel Bookstore has a premise that is sure to appeal to every bibliophile and passionate reader: it is the story of 'The Good Novel', a bookstore in which only the best books are on offer. The store is stocked using a rigorous selection procedure, guaranteeing that The Good Novel offers only ... good novels. As one of the partners in this scheme explains:
"Our concept is radical. It is a revolution in cultural behavior. Everybody nowadays agrees that too many uninteresting books are published. We think this phenomenon is like a pollution of the mind, and we are simply saying: enough. Let us refuse to see our taste polluted. Let's refresh the air. Let's breathe. We think we have a good chance of finding followers."
There's the seed of a great idea here, and Cossé tosses enough literary crumbs the reader's way -- mainly in the form of mentioning some of the selected titles -- to keep at least those who one might imagine would frequent this establishment interested. But this is not a well-told story. Indeed, the clever official site offers more satisfactions than the overlong book itself.
Cossé begins her story with accounts of attacks -- life-threatening, if (luckily) not quite fatal -- against several authors. "Threatened in exactly the same terms", they have one thing in common, besides being authors (though, in fact, one of them has worked hard not to be readily identifiable as such): they all serve on the eight-person-strong committee that selects the worthy titles for The Good Novel -- though it was thought that no one beside the store-owners knew their identities.
Those who run the store, Francesca and Ivan -- alternately (and very irritatingly so ...) called simply Van -- think the situation is serious enough to warrant going to the police, and there they start at the beginning, recounting how they came to found The Good Novel, and what difficulties they've faced, culminating now in these assaults. At her most ham-fisted here, Cossé -- seventy pages into the book ! -- has Francesca and Ivan and make their case:
"Francesca looked at her watch and asked, 'Can you give us an hour or two ? We need at least that.'
Heffner batted his eyelids, and that seemed a sufficient form of consent to Francesca. So she began outlining her method.
'The simplest would be if we list the events chronologically. In the beginning, you'll think it seems like a fairly quiet story about the birth of a bookstore. But very quickly, you'll see, the tone will change. There will be aggression, then attacks, more and more violence, leading to the events that have made us decide to come to the police: three crimes in one month.'"
An hour or two? They drone on interminably, in what in real life would cover a much longer time.
More importantly: woe the novelist who begins by outlining his or her method. And a pox on any who has his or her character do it ... and then even maps out how one is supposed to react. That is just bad, bad story-telling; unfortunately, that's the way Cossé works.
Beginning the novel with the crimes themselves, without the reader yet aware of their context, might seem a way to grab attention, but it doesn't work particularly well here. Cossé is no crime-fiction writer (she is, believe it or not, a novel-of-ideas sort of author ...), and it's only the promise of bookishness to come that is likely to keep the reader going through these pages: at one point Ivan claims that for eighty per cent of books, "reading the first twenty pages will suffice" to judge whether there's any worth to them; certainly A Novel Bookstore would inevitably fall by the wayside by those criteria.
The account Francesca and Ivan give to the police is, fortunately, a detailed one, and goes back to the beginning, building up the story more firmly. There's a bit of backstory about these very different characters -- Ivan a peripatetic bookseller, wealthy Francesca married to a businessman with whom she doesn't get along particularly well (and with whom she doesn't see eye-to-eye regarding business undertakings such as The Good Novel) -- but the focus is on their ambition, this bookstore decated to good books. There's some fun as to how they will determine what books are worthy, and eventually that's how the incognito committee comes into being.
For a while, A Novel Bookstore is a business-building novel, describing all the things that go into it -- and then the resounding success it has once the establishment opens its doors. Less convincing -- though at least amusing -- is the description of the backlash: "This is nothing more than a totalitarian undertaking", one (pseudonymous) article denounces them. Later, the executive director of book chain 'VLAM' (read: FNAC) writes an editorial in Le Bigaro (read: ... oh, for god's sake ...) tut-tutting:
"We detect a certain amount of class condescension in their agenda.
Those damn cultural elites ! (Taking away business from VLAM .....)"
But, as Francesca explains:
"We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage, which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention the disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable."
Much food for though there -- too bad Cossé can't be bothered to chew on it. Disappointingly, she's satisfied with her premise and doesn't do nearly as much with her material as she might. (But then consider what she did(n't do) in A Corner of the Veil, with all the potential there .....)
There are forces opposed to The Good Novel, but Cossé doesn't work well with them. Much is cloaked in anonymity and pseudonyms, as if that would lend an air of mystery to the story -- but Cossé doesn't do mystery well. There are those very real attacks, but even the police can't be bothered to really see things through. And the one truly shadowy figure, Francesca's husband, remains entirely too shadowy, used simply as a literal counter-part to good guys Francesca and Ivan.
Cossé's understanding (or lack thereof) of business don't help either -- money matters aren't very realistically dealt with here, down to the final buy-out. And there's the almost endearingly French lets-turn-capitalism-upside-down attitude she wants to sell, too: as Ivan explains:
To be honest, we are aiming to reverse the precedence between supply and demand. It's not demand that is going to lead, but offer. People will come through the door because they know they can find a rare selection of novels there, in addition to any particular titles they might be looking for.
But little thought goes into whether any of this is very convincing -- from the fact that super-stocked VLAM surely offers most of these novels (the out of print ones are a problem -- but for The Good Novel too, since they're so hard to re-stock), to the fact that The Good Novel's supposedly unique list can simply be copied from the online version of the store, leaving any other bookseller able to offer exactly the same books. Etc. etc.
Instead of focussing on her premise, Cossé lards her story not only with the attacks on the bookstore and the committee members (which certainly could have been integrated well into the tale -- by more capable hands) but also, for example, Ivan's wooing of the girl Anis, which lends little to the larger story.
There's also a first-person narrator who pops up occasionally. Who is it who is giving this account ? Alas: who cares ? This, like too much in the book, seems like yet another of Cossé's whims put down on the page (and not excised by the editor this book could so desperately have used).
There is some enjoyable literary debate here, and the many larger issues introduced here (though left with their surface barely scratched) are of great interest; bookish readers may well be willing to wade past all the book's many flaws. But it's bookish focus -- and, at least in the book-selection on offer in the store, literary sensibility -- is its only redeeming quality: A Novel Bookstore is an oddly structured novel, and Cossé doesn't follow through very well even with the simpler plot-points; disappointingly, it's not nearly as much fun as it should be. Pierre Siniac's The Collaborators is also messy, but a considerably better literary (i.e. also addressing all these literary issues) thriller. Hell, Nan and Ivan Lyons' Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe is more fun (and offers a better blueprint of where Cossé might have taken at least that part of her story).
Passionate readers will find it hard to pass up this book, but it's hard not to imagine most will be rather disappointed. But they should enjoy the official site.