My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jean Perdu's great love, Manon, left him two decades ago. Since then, he has maintained a floating bookshop-barge, a Literary Apothecary, on the banks of the Seine. His own heart and life have been hardened; the room in his apartment where he knew great love has been barricaded and left idle. By day, he dispenses books, suiting the title to the customer with uncanny accuracy, One customer might receive The Elegance of the Hedgehog, while another might be given a poem by Hesse or Tom's Midnight Garden. Only his cats, Lindgren and Kafka, are permitted to touch him; he can not prescribe a book for himself.
Catherine, his new neighbor, has escaped an abusive relationship. When M. Perdu's landlady urges him to donate something to help furnish her new apartment, he breaks into the long-deserted room to fetch a table. He is stunned when Catherine gives him a letter she found in a drawer - a letter from Manon. Unopened.
Tearing open the letter tears him apart when he learns why Manon chose to leave - not for lack of love at all. Suddenly, disappointment and anger become something very different. The young woman he first met on a train from Provence, for whom he prescribed books for homesickness, had another reason to leave him - and he failed her.
Also in the apartment complex is a young writer, Max Jordan, who wears earplugs and wooly mufti to escape the fans who clamor for more, more. He, too, has been abandoned - by his muse.
For much of the book, M. Perdu and Max navigate the the barge through the waterways of France, from Paris to Provence, as Perdu tries to retrace Manon's steps and learn her fate. They are not quite Huck and Jim, but some of their adventures are bittersweet, each meeting people and learning truths about themselves as they float through the countryside.
The book is a love song to love itself, Paris, the tango, food, books, and freedom. Some of the characters and episodes would be at home in "Amelie." Other situations are more like a gastronomic panorama. We learn that Paris is scented "like lime blossoms and expectation," that the air, one day, "was as warm as a brimming teacup." Catherine wanted to be a pirate and a librarian; she serves as M. Perdu's lodestar, and represents the possibility of mature, honest love. We learn of Manon from a diary in which she describes Perdu as a white raven.
If you are hungry when you finish the book, recipes are included for some of the dishes - (a Provencal soup called Pistou, lavender ice cream). Also included: "Jean Perdu's emergency literary pharmacy," from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (to be read "in easily digestible doses... with warm feet and/or with a cat on your lap"), Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn ("...protection against nostalgia for one's childhood"), Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities ("a book for me who've forgotten what they wanted from life"), and Enchanted April by elizabeth von Arnim, "for indecision and for trusting one's friends."
If I had a literary apothecary, I would prescribe this book to all of my friends.
Thank you, Net Galley, for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book.
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