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San Francisco Chronicle: "Marvelous and stimulating."

Date: Sep 15 2010

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To open a bookshop that would offer not the latest best-sellers but the best fiction of all time - "nothing but good novels" (and a few other volumes) that have won the hearts and minds of readers of all decades in several countries - this is the dream of the socially dissimilar but literarily well-matched man and woman who are the prime movers in French author Laurence Cossé's marvelous and stimulating "A Novel Bookstore."


Such a business plan might seem preposterous in most corners of our up-to-the-second world of breakout titles and hot new reads, but the store in this novel is planned for Paris, self-avowed culture capital of the globe, where great authors of all lands and eras are revered.


"Don't you think," one contemporary writer asks Van, would-be co-proprietor of this proposed shop, "that in France, in every restaurant, there is at least one table where people are talking about literature?" - to which the idealistic merchant responds, "That's our wager, our conviction, our hope."


The proud goal and catchy slogan of the Good Novel shop is to sell "all the books no one is talking about" - from Colette to Conrad, Austen to Stendhal, Beckett to Nabokov, Saul Bellow to Cormac McCarthy.


"You have almost no chance," one realist warns these bibliophiles; their response: "It's the almost that fascinates us."


Anyway, they're not in it just for remuneration. "We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage," explains co-owner Francesca (a woman of means, with a "half-regal, half-broken air"), "which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention the disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable."


But Van and Francesca don't intend to impose their exclusive taste on customers. To choose the store's stock, they enlist the aid of an anonymous committee of eight writers, some of them "very famous yet not very well-known" and all (needless to say) passionate about books. The committee's selections are made in the utmost secrecy. The store is launched with a fanfare of publicity. It's a hit. "We've opened the bookstore that was missing," an employee observes.


With success, though, comes a backlash: pseudonymous critiques in the literary opinion pages, decrying the store's supposedly elitist and anti-democratic stance; ill-mannered and illogical diatribes duplicated verbatim all over the Internet; obnoxious pretend patrons who complain when they can't find trendy books.


"Do you think these people are organized?" asks Francesca. "In other words, is there a conspiracy?"


Maybe, one supporter agrees: "The conspiracy of mediocre and envious people ... [T]hey are innumerable."


The attacks grow more creative and dangerous. Somehow the identities of the eight committee members are learned. Three are subjected to subtle but frightening attacks, each of which might have caused death. It's time to inform the police.


Cossé, who has written plays and journalism as well as several previous novels (and whose French text is translated with elegance here by novelist Alison Anderson), has constructed "A Novel Bookstore" in a clever way: The book begins with descriptions of the committee members' menacings, provoking a reader's quick interest and sympathy. Then follows the booksellers' lengthy interview with a sympathetic police inspector, in which the history of their individual lives and mutual enterprise is told. After that, the rest of the plot unfolds.


Several mysteries are plumbed, if not necessarily solved, in this most engaging and winning novel, whose cast of concerned characters also includes a younger woman dancing in and out of Van's existence, and an estranged husband whose intentions toward Francesca's business venture are never clear. Is true love meant to be inevitable, or bound to be unrequited? How does one define success? What will result from that police inspector's inquiries? And who is the omniscient "I" narrating this book?


Readers can extend their immersion in this captivating fiction by going to, inspecting the eclectic list of books stocked at this platonic ideal of a shop, and suggesting titles to add. I nominate "A Novel Bookstore."


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