Kerri Maher’his last novel, The Parisian bookseller, is intended to appeal to fans of the bestselling author, Natasha Lester. Not only does it set Paris in the 1920s, but it features at its heart the little-known story behind the establishment of the iconic Shakespeare and Co bookstore.
Readers may be interested to know, as I was, that the Shakespeare and Co Bookshop as we know it today is actually the second iteration of the store; the first having been established in 1919 by Sylvia Beach and closed during World War II. Legend has it that the shop was ordered to close after Beach refused to sell a copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a Nazi officer; but when officers returned later, there was no trace of the store to be found. Friends of Beach’s (including, perhaps, Ernest Hemingway) had helped her hide any trace of a bookstore there. But I’m getting ahead of myself and this wonderful novel.
The Parisian bookseller is the story of Sylvia Beach, a young woman who loves books. She writes, yes, but her real passion is reading and connecting books with readers. Inspired by the woman she loves, who runs a French-language bookstore, American expat Beach decides to open an English-language bookstore nearby; something she accomplishes with a little help from her mother’s savings account.
Soon Shakespeare and Co became the center of the literary community made up of writers such as Hemingway, Stein and (much to Sylvia’s delight) James Joyce. Sylvia idolizes Joyce and when she learns that the great man is in Paris, lives in hope that he will come to her shop. She gets more than she bargained for, however, when Joyce becomes a friend of sorts – if indeed, James Joyce can be said to have had one.
Joyce seems to be afflicted with a problematic ego. One which means that all his relationships are about how others can serve him and not the other way around. People seem to forgive him because he is “a genius”. He lives on the charity of others, and when his work in progress, Ulysses, is banned in the United States for obscene, Sylvia comes to her rescue. She will publish the book, under the aegis of Shakespeare and Co. The novel tells the story of exactly Why it is the only book the store has ever published.
The writing of this book is exquisite, taking the reader not just to Paris but back in time. Bibliophiles and history buffs will delight in the detail and atmosphere Kerri Maher creates on the page. I got to thinking not only of a comparison with Natasha Lester, but also of Paula McLainthe enduring escape novel, The Parisian woman, and last year’s sensational The Parisian library by Janet SkeslienCharles. Maybe I just have a penchant for books about literature set in Paris. But, if that’s the case, then so is the publishing world, because the appetite for this kind of book shows no signs of abating. (And speaking of appetites, while reading this book, I had to fight off a strong urge to wander daily to the pastry shop in search of croissants.)
Maher’s approach of using real people in her novel shows a deep respect for the people she portrays. Even the mercurial figure of Joyce, portrayed here with warts and all with his bad behavior and constant advantage-taking, is treated with sympathy. Maher’s approach seems to recognize that relationships are often much more complex than historical research can ever seek to show. She carefully explores Beach’s life and friendships. Likewise, the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters and related discussions of attitudes of the time are sensitively included, rather than sensationalizing the book or making it more cosmopolitan. Sylvia’s preference for women is on display on the page from the start and isn’t revealed as something shocking or traumatic to overcome – it just is.
If you are looking to travel to Paris in the 1920s; if you liked Midnight in Paris; or if you are interested in literature and history publishing, then this book is for you. You don’t even have to have read Ulysses.