Book Review for “The Mystery of Henri Pick” by David Foenkinos (Translated by Sam Taylor)
Where to begin to review this book? See, there is a whole lot to unpack here, and if we unpack too much, we’ll end up with spoilers. To begin with, let’s start with the overall effect of this book, which is quite a romp. When I began reading this book, Gourvec, the man came up with the idea of housing these rejected manuscripts (within the municipal library) was described as someone who could help people find the right book for them – even for someone who didn’t like to read. That put me in mind of the protagonist in Nina George’s novel “The Little Paris Bookshop,” whose owner seems to have this same talent (maybe this is a French trait?), so I thought I was going to get something like that. However, no sooner had this been revealed than that character dies, leaving the library in the hands of his assistant Magali. Apparently Magali wasn’t much into reading or books when she was hired by Gourvec, and after his death, she doesn’t do much to care for his collection of unwanted books. Of course, all this changes when Delphine comes to visit (as the blurb suggests).
However, I don’t think the story to publish this abandoned manuscript on the one hand, and solve its mystery on the other, is really what is at heart here. In fact, although on the surface this whole discovery/mystery plot surrounding the book seems central to this novel, I think that Foenkinos actually used that as a ruse to investigate something much deeper, something much more complex. If I’m really honest, I might say that the blurb is terribly misleading, and in fact, this book isn’t actually about the questions surrounding an uncovered masterpiece at all. For me, this is actually a conglomeration of connected character studies and a whole bunch of little coming-of-age stories, all focused on the effect that recognition and/or admiration can have on people, especially when previously, their lives may have lacked or lost either, or both of these.
Let me explain. Although there is a certain major arc to this story around the publication and authorship of this book, there are also many little side stories going on here. While all of them are connected in their own way to this novel, they also seem to be connected through how this book seems to have spawned some kind of change in each of their lives. Furthermore, the old adage “no two people read the same book” is proven in full force here, as we hear how each person reacts to the novel, and personalizes parts of it to parallel either their own lives, or give new insights into their histories. Now, this doesn’t mean that all of the effects of this mysterious novel are positive ones, and in fact, we also see how the prospect of fame and fortune can bring out the worst in some people, particularly those who would take advantage of someone else for their own gain. In addition, not all of the changes that this book’s publication cause in these characters, are for the better. This means that while it might seem like this is a plot driven book, I actually think it is more character driven – albeit multiple characters, but still. That makes this a deceptively layered novel, that investigates the human condition from different angles.
Finally, Foenkinos achieves all this with a prose style that is very much on the cheeky side, as if he didn’t really take any of this whole thing seriously, and so maybe we as readers shouldn’t either. However, I should mention that although this is contemporary fiction, there was a bit of an older-world feel to the prose here that didn’t totally fit with the current era for me. This means that I was constantly taken a bit aback every time things like Google or smart phones were mentioned. This could be the fault of the translator, but I must admit that it was a bit unsettling for me.
Now while I enjoyed this book a great deal, I’m unsure (at this point) if it is worthy of a full five stars or not. On the one hand, it was a very fun read, with a great twist of an ending. On the other hand, I wonder if this book is a potential modern classic, or perhaps it’s just a satire of the publishing industry and its adoration of pushing “form over substance” in order to sell more books; if I give it five stars, am I buying into that? Well, instead, maybe I’ll give it four and a half stars and allow myself to change this rating if I feel that I’ve been overly generous or not generous enough, after I think about it more. Either way, I still recommend this book warmly, and I feel it will have quite a widespread appeal.
Pushkin Press released “The Mystery of Henri Pick” by David Foenkinos (translated by Sam Taylor) in May, 2020 in the UK, and will release it in the USA on September 1, 2020. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (supporting independent book stores) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley AND via Edelweiss.
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