“And then, eventually… all of a sudden I knew what was important– grief showed me. Love is important. Good food. And standing tall and not saying yes when you should say no.”
You don’t have to like something to appreciate it. That’s my takeaway from this most recent book and the reason I am reviewing it. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George has a delightful premise: a bookshop named Literary Apothecary, located on a moored barge on the Seine. A bookshop owner who specializes in reading the emotional needs of his customers and “treat[ing] feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors.” A literary pharmacist, he has a prescription (in book form) for every ailment, whether the customer is aware of the need or not. Like experts in many fields, however, he treats everyone but himself. Crippled by grief from the loss of a lover 20 years in the past, he lives a sterile life with a barren apartment, a sealed-off room, and books— so many books. The title is misleading, for the story does not center around the bookshop at all, much to my disappointment. Rather, it is a journey of grief that takes Jean Perdu along the waterways of southern France and chips away at his hardened shell until he is ready to live again.
I had no patience with Perdu. I found him to be a pathetic character (later joined by two equally pathetic characters) whom I wanted to take by the shirt collar and give a good shaking to. His journey of grief was extremely long and slow, and I found the book to have similar qualities. I’m not sure why I’ve been so harsh towards this poor protagonist. Maybe it’s some psychological transference. Life has been stressful recently. Like Perdu, I feel like we’ve been spinning our wheels. I’m working nights now, the baby still doesn’t sleep well, and we’re just tired all. of. the. time. I hate to feel stuck, like I’m not living life to the fullest, and am therefore lashing out at a literary character who is letting his whole life slip through his fingers. My dislike for the book’s characters made me decide to just finish it as quickly as possible and move on without review. But as I read on, I knew that that decision would be a disservice to the premise of this blog. The role of food makes its way to center stage in ways I would not have anticipated by the book’s title and description. It is set, after all, where “eating was more sacred to the French than state, religion and money combined.” Ah, Paris– where waistlines are thin and mealtimes are decadent.
Perdu not only takes a physical journey and a spiritual journey, but also a culinary journey. From his lonely apartment where his tins of food are alphabetized, to his workspace on the book barge where Max finds “mainly cat food” and a tin of white beans, Perdu first associates food with sensual pleasure as he cooks a meal of red mullets, fresh herbs, cream, new potatoes, cheese, pears, and wine with Catherine, the woman who first chips away at the two-decades-old barnacles on his heart. His primal instinct tells him that he must first heal himself before he is able to love purely, so he unbolts the barge and bolts from the city. It’s an amusing scene, as young Max, the haunted author, jumps in with him and hijacks the getaway, leaving his bags in the Seine. Perdu’s culinary journey continues when he meets Cuneo, the third of the trio of pathetic, lovesick men, who has been searching the waterways of France for a fling he met over a decade ago. Cuneo comes with his own spice apothecary and takes over the galley kitchen, much to the delight and relief of Perdu and Max. Cuneo uses spices as Perdu uses books, as remedies for the soul. “I once knew a woman who wept when she smelled roses. Another woman found it incredibly erotic when I baked pâté en croûte. Aromas do funny things to the soul.” Perdu mulls this over. “‘For me it’s lavender,’ he admitted hesitantly.”
Cuneo has more gems of culinary wisdom: “Ah, Pagnol. A good man. He knew that you can only really see with your tongue.” And, “Capitano perduto, I’m a firm believer that you have to taste a country’s soul to understand it and to grasp its people. And by soul I mean what grows there, what its people see and smell and touch every day, what travels through them and shapes them from the inside out.” As they journey on, food takes on an even more philosophical role in the story. During his sojourn in Provence, Perdu pontificates, “‘Can eating heal you?’ With every bite of food steeped in the herbs and oils of Provence he seemed to absorb a little more of the land that lay ahead; it was as if he were eating the surrounding countryside.” Even Perdu’s recipe for book recommendations changes. Instead of giving the customer the answer to the internal need he sees, or asking them how they want the book to make them feel, now he asks, “‘How should the book taste? Of ice cream? Spicy, meaty? Or like a chilled rosé?’ Food and books were closely related. He discovered this in Sanary, and it earned him the nickname ‘the book epicure.’”
Besides these beautiful food and book analogies, The Little Paris Bookshop also contains recipes, Recipes! How convenient is that? Before you get excited, I decided not to make any of them. It was just too depressing. Here I am, stuck in the armpit of the U.S. (sorry, those of you who love Texas. Also, why?), and I’m reading ingredients like “herbes de Provence,” “an early winter truffle,” “spicy, fruity (sun-kissed) tomatoes,” “lavender flowers (freshly picked or organic),” and “dried figs (homegrown).” Right. The recipes all hail from the heart of Provence, using ingredients as farm-to-table as you can get. Not exactly the flavors I’ll eke out of my HEB produce department. I’m really being a betty-downer today, but I just couldn’t muster up the optimism of French cooking in a Texas kitchen.
Before I completely threw in the towel, I was reminded of one of the book’s main themes: Live in the moment. The thing that most drew Perdu to Manon, his dead lover, was her ability to live in the present. “She never planned, she was always entirely present. She didn’t talk about dessert during the main course, about the coming morning as she was falling asleep, about meeting again when saying good-bye. She was always in the now.” Lived out completely, this has drawbacks, but overall a quality that I would like to cultivate more. In the midst of his journey, Perdu has this inner monologue: “How about starting tomorrow? No– how about right now?! […] Would, should, could… Now. It is only ever now. So do it, you coward, Breathe underwater at last.” Just because I can’t jet-set to the south of France to practice a few recipes doesn’t mean that I can’t try something new here. Off we go to the farmers’ market.
There are multiple farmers’ markets in the area, but I’ve seldom gone. Primarily this is because I work weekends, and many are held on Saturday mornings. It just hasn’t become a habit. I strapped the baby in his carrier and took Thing 1 by the hand, and we explored. By far, the best part of the experience is the interactions with the sellers. So friendly and helpful. Also, samples. This was akin to Halloween. After the first few tables, Thing 1 had caught on well and marched around with hands outstretched. Here’s a look at our inauguratory market stash. Surely you’ve already noted the fact that we didn’t in fact buy anything from a farm? Therein lies my conundrum. I find it hard to make a grocery list or menu before going to a local market, as one never knows what will be sold that day. However, I also find it hard to develop a menu on the fly while I’m there and often spend way too much money on goods that I may or may not make the best use of. Please advise. What is your farmers’ market strategy? Do you plan before, during, or after? Vote the poll on my Twitter feed, and comment with your tips, please! I’d like to make this outing a habit, to add both to the health and savoriness of our meals, but need a better strategy.
Perhaps the best part of The Little Paris Bookshop was the author’s section entitled, “Jean Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy: from Adams to von Arnim” with delightful entries like this:
Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. An effective cure in large doses for if-such-and-such-happens-ism. Recommended for unacknowledged geniuses, lovers of intellectual films, and people who hate bus drivers.
The book may be worth purchasing for this section alone.
Two excellent lessons: live in the moment, but be patient with yourself (and others) during the “hurting time.” Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time […] Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride. Like many medicines, the dose might be a bitter swallow and not have immediate enjoyment. I think that writing through this particular literary prescription has convinced me of its worth.
P.S. Speaking of provincial France, drop everything right now and go see the new Beauty and the Beast, starring the girl who was born to play Belle, Emma Watson. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. But really– GO. There will be tears and goosebumps.
Bonjour! Bonjour. Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!