Review: A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

As an avid reader I enjoy “books about books” and this one certainly falls into that category.  Imagine a couple of lovers of literature who get the opportunity to open a book-shop which only sells “good” books, those which meet a criteria of literary worth, deliberately ignoring the current literary prizes and the year’s crop of much-lauded novels.  The premise of A Novel Bookstore is that a wealthy woman, Francesca, is able to work with Ivan, a like-minded book-shop manager, acquire some prime real-estate in Paris and indulge their tastes without fear of bankruptcy.

A team of eight people is recruited (all writers of quality literature or having other suitable qualifications) and are required to provide a list of 600 books which the book-shop should stock. When the lists are received, the manager and owner correlate the eight lists together to compile an overall list which will provide the shop’s initial stock. The shop will not stock new books until they have proved themselves and the committee has agreed that they should be added.

But trouble soon arrives on their doorstep, beginning with physical attacks on three members of the selection committee.  Who is behind them?  Before long a vicious campaign is launched to vilify the shop and to present is as an elitist enterprise run by people who have contempt for the tastes of most readers.  The rest of the book follows the attempts to uncover the source of the plots and personal attacks, while a couple of romantic relationships are developed along the way with the usual joys and sorrows.

On the whole, I quite enjoyed the book.  Despite its 400+ pages, its an engaging read which held my interest, despite the basic implausibility of the story, the occasionally clunky dialouge and the flaws in the out-working of the plot.  A Novel Bookstore relies on the presupposition that the opening of a book-shop in Paris that only sells “good” novels, will provoke an angry response from the mainstream literary world, leading to poster campaigns, articles in newspapers, speeches from government ministers and even attempted murder.  We even find the opponents of the shop are so incensed by the Novel Bookstore that they go to the lengths of setting up three other book-shops opposite and next-door  to the Novel Bookstore selling “pleasurable books” and “good books”.   I found this sort of thing stretched my credulity more than it should and rather spoiled the book for me.

Perhaps Paris is different to London: I am certain that the opening of a book-shop in central London where the books were hand-picked by an anonymous committee would lead to nothing other than a few laughs – not least because readers who may require such a service have surely by now migrated to the Internet where their needs are met by Amazon, Ebay and Abebooks.

Slightly Foxed bookshop

In fact, the idea of specialised book-shops for devoted readers is not new and for example, London already has a new book-shop that “stocks an eclectic but carefully chosen range of old books, a selection of new books and classic reprints from interesting small publishers” for people who “tend to be independent-minded too – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.” Hmm, this sounds rather like A Novel Bookstore, though on a smaller scale, and I’m sure that Slightly Foxed would be immensely grateful for even a fraction of the attention, whether critical or not, that was attracted by the fictional book-shop in this novel.

The whole book has a rather archaic feel to it. The correlation of the lists is done laboriously by hand – it would have been quite possible to have done this in moments with Microsoft Office or similar.  Its as though the shop exists in the 1970s, before the days of cheap personal computers and the Internet.  The creation of a website is a sort of after-thought, and is achieved by the manager going on a “webmaster” course – Laurence Cossé obviously knows little about the complexities of setting up an inventory management system with a related database and the merchant services to enable customer to use credit cards. Even the sourcing of obscure or out of print books is solved by the manager saying, “I know an excellent network of used book dealers.  I’ll get in touch with them, and get them to find us those unobtainable books”.  Evidently he has not heard of Google or the search facilities on sites like Abebooks.

But I am being unfair! The purpose of this book as far as I can tell is as a sort of hymn to good reading, where a special clientele of sophisticated and refined people can indulge their literary tastes in a discrete atmosphere where an old-fashioned library-silence reigns.  This is the power of fiction which the author puts in the mouth of one of her characters like this:

Literature is a source of pleasure . . . is it one of those rare inexhaustible joys in life, bit it’s not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality.  Everything is there.  That is why I never use the word fiction.  Every subtlety in life is material for a book.  Novels don’t only contain exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and in response, every human attitude, every type of behaviour, from the finest to the most wretched.  Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.

I got the impression throughout that the concepts of the Novel Bookstore are close to the author’s heart. She really couldn’t have written 400 pages about this shop and its ethos without being convinced of its value. For myself, I was impressed by the counter-arguments put forward by an opponent of the shop –

We have to ensure the life of a popular culture which has given us great works. Some of those works, which were looked down on when they were published, are now unanimously revered, such as works by authors such as Alexadre Dumas, Jules Verne, or Hergé. The essential problem raised by the notion of literary value is that the value changes with time. A work that might have been hailed by its contemporaries seems trivial a hundred years later, perhaps even thirty years later. Our love of the novel and of the book is so great that we cannot see why, or even how, once could exclude, by means of a selection process, 99 percent of the titles available. Our passion and our cause is to respect the diversity of cultures, and the diversity of individuals.

I thought this was a rather good argument against the Novel Bookstore, but the managers of the Novel Bookstore responds with a blunt – “what a load of sophistry”.

Despite my reservations, this book is still a “good read”.  I have no doubt that most readers will not actually quibble at the things I found annoying – which are probably due to my lifetime working in the IT industry. The book is beautifully designed and presented – one of the most attractive books I have seen in a long time.

Incidentally, the publishers have created a website for the fictional shop – a bit of fun which may well convince quite a few people that A Novel Bookstore is more than a work of fiction.

I was inspired to read this book after reading reviews by Guy Savage and Mary Whipple, both of whom seemed to think it was pretty good.

Title: A Novel Bookstore
Author: Laurence Cossé
Publication: Europa Editions (August 2010) paperback, 454 pages
ISBN: 9781933372822

23 thoughts on “Review: A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

  1. Phew! The phrase “old-fashioned library silence” has taken me back. I work in a University in the UK, and when I’m ever in the library here it amazes me how anyone can work at all with the buzz of conversation and mobile phones.

    I will definitely be popping in to Foxed Books when the opportunity presents itself.


  2. Again, many thanks for introducing/re-introducing books that might be overlooked as this one has been, by me (shame be upon me!). Laurence Cossé fairly familiar; hadn’t read her novels. We might have an instance of Dante’s famous dictum ‘traduttore traditore’ here: not merely linguistically but also (as you suggest) culturally. France has changed enormously since I lived here last. First off = huge reach of media in general + in particular corollary encroachment of cleb culture pushed by media (‘la presse people’). Second, all the worst aspects of globalisation inevitably present – and their presentation = politiquement correct (ie source of even more gobsmacking levels of hypocrisy than hitherto, which should be impossible but sadly is no such thing).
    An arts journo by trade, LC’s main concern seems to be the overwhelming power of contemporary media + the various depredations of PC-itude. Most cultural commentators are loftily – proudly, even – unaware of the world of commerce hence the glaring errors you identify (why can’t novelists research these areas? Surely they know many of their readers have nasty, mammon-serving gigs to bring home the bacon – not to mention the books?). But bookselling IS different here. Suspect LC’s using her stock-in-trade, irony, to have a pop at the élite in Paris dictating literary taste in horribly skewed, possibly ignorant and occasionally philistinistic PC fashion – bad faith in action. On that basis, it should have translated well …
    But MUST read for myself. As ever, you’ve whetted my appetite. Merci, Tom!


  3. Ack! This sounds like so much fun! This is exactly the kind of “book about books” that I think I’d enjoy a lot. And certainly the Parisian setting doesn’t hurt either… I’ve been looking for some French literature that won’t alienate me (so far I’ve just got “Le Petit Prince” and “Madame Bovary” on the list), so I’m definitely going to give this a shot.

    Also, while not entirely the same, while reading your review I was reminded of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookstore, which I read and reviewed earlier this year. It’s about an Englishwoman who decides to open up a bookstore in a small fishing village to rather interesting results…


    • Steph – thanks for the reference to the Penelope Fitzgerald book – I’ve never heard of it. If you want some good French litererature then Guy de Maupassant’s short stories are a good starting point perhaps or his book Pierre et Jean.


  4. On Mostly Fiction (the home of the whole review), I mentioned I disliked the tepid romance. I thought Van’s girlfriend was annoying and the whole subplot distracted me from the books and the bookshop.

    The book got me thinking about the entire industry and the generic presentation of bookshops these days. I’m talking about the chains. They all look the same and carry the same stock.

    I thought it was implausible that the policeman would sit still while Van and Francesca rattled on about the shop’s genesis, but I bought the rival bookshops and the furor over book selection. Some pretty nasty stuff has taken place on Amazon, for example, under cloak of anonymous reprisals, and it would only take a couple of truly pissed off authors whose books didn’t make those select lists to organise and strike back.


    • Hi Guy – yes, I suppose there was that Orlando Figes affair wasn’t there. It just seems incredible that the shop’s opponents would go to the lengths of setting up three rival shops on their doorstep. The whole police investigation sounded totally unlikely – it would have been very hard to get them engaged at that level I think. A good idea, but perhaps needed some more thought about the outworking of it


  5. This sounds wonderful Tom ,like you I love books about books to ,I ve often dreamed of owning a bookshop selling hand choosen books be wonderful ,slightly foxed looks wonderful bookshop ,all the best stu


  6. Doesn’t every reader with an extensive library have a dream about setting up a bookshop just like this? See stu’s comment. Some do, and of course lose a ton of money but have great fun doing it.

    And if they are rich enough to actually do that, they probably have a total lack of the IT knowledge that you find wanting in the book. I suspect there is more “realism” to that aspect than you found.

    I was intrigued by this book when Guy reviewed it — you have added to the intrigue. And I love the cover.


    • Hi Kevin – well, I wasn’t over -impressed with it, but enjoyed reading it -if you know what I mean. I think any book-lover would enjoy the book. It has a vast number of references to other books in it which is quite interesting


  7. I rather think bookselling is different in Paris. After all, when Victor Hugo split the alexandrine in a Parisian theatre in the nineteenth century, the audience went wild. You may imagine that in a similar situation in the UK, a few grumblings about getting money back would be the biggest consequence… And there is a fabulous novel called Saga by Tonino Benacquista, in which a group of screenwriters produce a bizarre, cult tv programme that runs at 3 in the morning, only it gets so popular that it’s switched to mainstream tv. The ending they had planned is rewritten by the tv moguls to fit the standards of prime time viewing, so the screenwriters (outraged) sabotage it and turn it into an awful anti-cathartic ending. The consequence? They are hounded out of Paris by the fans of the series. I so wish someone would translate this book – it’s a delight. Anyway, just more examples of the French simply caring about their culture in a more visceral way that we could envisage doing ourselves….


    • Litlove – thanks for the very interesting comment. I agree that the French care about their culture more. We are stuck with Waterstones and Smiths and independents have little chance


  8. We readers can forgive a lesser novel if the subject matter is close to our heart can’t we. We might know that it’s not one of the lasting books around but we can enjoy it nonetheless. Sort of related is a nonfiction book I read a couple of years ago – semi-self-published by the sister of a friend. It was called Tea in the library and was about her attempt to establish a bookship with a cafe in it. She had such vision, but in the end it was more romantic than practical. It did, however, make for a fascinating read, because of the subject matter and because of her honesty about her mistakes.


  9. Actually the notion of such exclusions in a store’s offerings sounds delightfully Parisian. I also have a thing for books on books, both fiction and nonfiction, so I am more than willing to forgive small flaws here for all the possibilities you put forward here so well. I think I have a new object of book lust for this week.


    • Frances, although I found the book annoying in some ways, I can’t deny that its a good read and one that any reader would enjoy. I hope you like it


  10. Pingback: A Parisian book store | Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  11. The Bookshop, like A Novel Bookstore/Au Bon Roman is a story on the same theme featuring an English bookstore in a coastside town. A Man Booker Prize Nominee (1978), The Bookshop reads like a tragic murder mystery: the end is in sight from the first pages, but what pages they are!


    • Natalie – Thanks for the comment – I’ve never heard of The Bookshop but it looks worth seeking out. You have a nice website but comments are “wordpress members only”


  12. Pingback: Steph & Tony Investigate! » Blog Archive » You take the good, you take the bad…

  13. Pingback: A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé « Bay State Reader's Advisory: Reading Suggestions from a Massachusetts Librarian

  14. Pingback: Book notes: Cossé, Levine, Unsworth « Follow the Thread

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