The Paris Bookseller | Kerri Maher #USAfiction

It was hard not to feel that Paris was the place.

My response to The Paris Bookseller has been complicated.

I was keen to read it thanks to the blurb which told me it had a Paris setting, a bookshop and Sylvia Beach. That should have been enough. But it wasn’t. The writing was dull and pedestrian, the dialogue was clunky and the romance came across as being sensational rather than realistic. ‘Show not tell’ was not a part of Maher’s repertoire, which meant that I never really engaged with any of the main characters. The famous writers and artists who were a part of Sylvia’s scene never came to life either. They simply wandered in and out the store randomly.

So why did I persist?

I read The Paris Bookseller because it was my August book club choice with the added bonus that it also fitted into Paris in July, however that was the other thing that was missing from this book. Paris. I never once felt like I was in Paris or Europe or the 1920’s. Which is a shame as Maher acknowledged at the end of the book the time she had spent in Paris researching and writing. There were some internal descriptions of Shakespeare & Company and Gertrude Stein’s salon that showed how well researched this novel actually was but Paris itself was just a few addresses and sites.

So really, why did I keep going?

Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia and her bookshop and those heady, exciting days in the 1920’s when Paris was alive with literary, artistic and creative life is one of those epochs I love to read about. In this case, the early days of the bookshop was also the time that Sylvia first met James Joyce, which led to her being the first publisher of Ulysses. Fascinating stuff. I didn’t know that Joyce was such a selfish dick!

Maher included a few excerpts from letters between Sylvia and her family and friends, which were fascinating glimpses into the real woman.

I believe that Maher was also trying to show that censorship, prohibition, the curtailing of freedoms such as speech and association, as well as the politics of morality have been a part of American life for a long time. The letters she included from Sylvia’s family and friends back in the US highlighting the ‘moral handwringing‘ that was in evidence in the 1920’s, often read like letters that could have been written in 2022.

Despite the nondescript writing, I ended up finding The Paris Bookseller rather captivating, purely thanks to Sylvia Beach. If you’re after an undemanding, easy to read book for your next holiday and you enjoy historical fiction, then this is the book for you.

What I Found:

  • Adrienne Monnier, Beach’s partner for most of the novel had a sister called, Rinette who was married to the painter Paul-Émile Bécat.
  • Beach commisioned the portrait of Monnier (below)) and two years later one of herself.
  • They were in her possession until she died in 1962.
  • They are now part of the Princeton Universtity collection.
Adrienne Monnier (1892-1955), oil on canvas (detail), Paul-Émile Bécat (1921)

Facts:

  • Born Nancy Woodbridge Beach in Baltimore, Maryland (14 March 1887 – 5 October 1962).
  • On 15 November 1915 Adrienne Monnier’s French bookshop opened – La Société des Amis du Livre, The Society of Friends of the Book.
  • Monnier published her own French-language literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent, The Silver Ship.
  • She also published the French translation of Ulysses.
  • Sylvia and Adrienne separated in 1937 but remained good friends until Adrienne’s suicide in 1955.
  • Monnier stayed open during the entire Occupation of Paris, but Sylvia closed her bookshop in 1941 and never reopened.
  • After Sylvia’s death, her sister Holly arranged for Sylvia’s papers, letters, journals and portraits to be entrusted to Princeton University.
Sylvia Beach, oil on canvas, by Paul-Émile Bécat (1923)

Favourite Reading Moment: Ezra Pound’s handyman skills. He regularly appeared, with screwdriver in hand, to repair the many secondhand chairs and tables that Sylvia had littered around the bookshop.

Bookish Serendipity:

  • Earlier this month I read Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse which was set in 1930’s Geneva at the League of Nations.
  • At one point, Joyce asked the League to help him get his daughter, Lucia, out of France and into a clinic in Switzerland to help her with her mental health issues. The League was unable to help. Joyce died soon after in 1941 Zurich while Lucia remained in various asylums until her death in 1981.
  • It was rather sad to see how the young, vivacious teenage Lucia portrayed in The Paris Bookseller ended her days.

Further Reading:

  • Sylvia Beach | Shakespeare and Company (1991)
  • Noël Riley Fitch  | Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983) – maybe, maybe not. The reviews are varied.
  • James Joyce | Ulysses (1922) – one day!
  • Keri Walsh | The Letters of Sylvia beach (2010)

Favourite or Forget: Curiously, even though I skim read most of the book, I will always remember what I learnt about Sylvia, James Joyces and the birthing pains of Ulysses. This story got under my skin.

Title: The Paris Bookseller
Author: Kerri Maher
ISBN: 9781472290779
Imprint: Headline Review
Published: 25 January 2022 
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 319
Dates Read: 11 July 2022 - 23 July 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

28 thoughts on “The Paris Bookseller | Kerri Maher #USAfiction

  1. Pingback: Paris In July 2022
  2. Methinks you are suffering a complaint common to anyone who’s read a really marvellous book. In your case, by Frank Moorhouse.
    Anything you read afterwards will seem pitiful!

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  3. I will probably skip this one, since many of the characters and places you mention I have read about elsewhere. Especially, since I just read The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley and found it not so interesting. Can’t take another one like that for the moment.

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  4. I think you and I have somewhat similar feelings on this one, although you liked it better than I did. I didn’t include in in PIJ because I’d done a post on it (and other books) back in April and didn’t really want to rework it. But I have bias against bio-fiction in general and unless I know more about the research methods than what was listed in Maher’s short notes, I don’t feel really happy with it. But I will say I read it for the same reasons as you — Sylvia Beach — and now I’m rather eager to read a more substantial “real” biography of her. Here’s my post from April if you’re interested. https://themarmeladegypsy.blogspot.com/2022/04/marching-through-books-real-people.html

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    1. Thanks for the link to your review. I hoped all the way through that the dialogue was completely invented, as it was so woeful. If they had been lifted from a diary it would have brought down my opinion of Beach!
      I actually don’t mind biographical fiction, but prefer it when it’s further away from modern times (Wolf Hall), where I know next to nothing about the main characters (The Magician) or has an element of family history (The Parisian). I was wary of this from the start. But I’m glad I read Sylvia’s story – she was an amazing woman, and now I want to read more about her.

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  5. You convinced me not to read it! I have read the book by Sylvia Beach and also have read Ulysses. Maybe I’ll just stop.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. The memoir written by Sylvia herself certainly appeals to me the most too. And Ulysses is on the one day pile. I have an annotated edition I want to savour not rush. I also a history book of this era, When Paris Sizzled which I’m now considering for next years PiJ.

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  6. Authors choose a Paris setting because they know so many of us seek out books with such a setting. But the setting often feels tacked on (because, well, it is).

    I’ve read much disappointing Paris fiction. But it’s my own fault. And occasionally I do find the real deal and it sends me back on another search for more. sigh

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    1. The books I read this year by French authors were much better choices. Lesson learnt! I have read some wonderful stories by non-French writers about Paris, by they were more in the memoir genre than fiction – another lesson learnt!!

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    1. The list was part of the bibliography supplied by Maher that I would like to read one day.
      On my TBR I also have a history book called When Paris Sizzled that covers this epoch too. It looks promising.

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  7. I saw your blog’s name on several posts I read and came for a visit. I rarely read contemporary American books on fiction happening in Paris – I think it’s not easy for the authors to avoid culture or other mistakes. The last book I almost finished was a mystery by Karen Black. The problem is that she used well known commercial names for her protagonists – like Javel (known bleach) Rambuteau (known Metro station) Goutal (perfume maker) – it just sounded fake. On top of that she had the Police station in Paris having a cocktail party at Christmas with the Marseillaise playing in the background – what?
    One of the books I truly enjoyed was Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company by James R. Mellow. It really conveys well that early time in Paris. I also liked Morley Gallaghan That Summer in Paris. Have you read them? I was so taken by Gertrude that I read some of hers book and bought her book on Alice B. Toklas as well as Toklas’ cookbook, then dragged my husband to see the special Gertrude Stein former painting collection at the Met in New York. Another good book about the 1920s is Amanda Vaill’s Everybody was so Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: a Lost generation Love Story.

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    1. Thanks for the book recommendations, I’ll certainly be adding some of them to my every expanding wishlist! I went through a Gertrude Stein phase a few years ago and acquired several of her books…but haven’t read them yet! There is always next years PiJ 🙂

      The lesson I learnt from reading this book is that it works better for me when I stick to books written by French authors if I want to really feel like I’m in Paris. The two Maigret’s I read were delightful as always and I also read my first Simone de Beauvoir (review to come) – a much more satisfying reading experience!

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  8. Sylvia Beach sounds fascinating! Too bad the novel didn’t really succeed. And this is a big fail for a historical novelist: “I never once felt like I was in Paris or Europe or the 1920’s.” That should be priority #1! I might take a look, or I might look for a good biography.

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  9. So unfortunate that Sylvia Beach is handled by a lack than adequate writer. She deserves a high calibre biographer or fiction writer. Thanks for your supplement section, very informative!

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    1. I’d love to see a modern biography about Beach too, she led such a fascinating life, not ony during the twenty years or so with the bookshop, but before and afterwards as well.

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  10. Thanks for this very through post. During Paris in July 2915 i read an interesting post on a book store, The Little Paris Book Store by Nina Gerorge

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