Book Review for “The Paris Bookseller” by Kerri Maher.
Summary: “When bookish young American Sylvia Beach opens Shakespeare and Company on a quiet street in Paris in 1919, she has no idea that she and her new bookstore will change the course of literature itself. Shakespeare and Company is more than a bookstore and lending library: Many of the most prominent writers of the Lost Generation, like Ernest Hemingway, consider it a second home. It’s where some of the most important literary friendships of the twentieth century are forged–none more so than the one between Irish writer James Joyce and Sylvia herself. When Joyce’s controversial novel “Ulysses” is banned, Beach takes a massive risk and publishes it under the auspices of Shakespeare and Company. But the success and notoriety of publishing the most infamous and influential book of the century comes with steep costs. The future of her beloved store itself is threatened when “Ulysses’” success brings other publishers to woo Joyce away. Her most cherished relationships are put to the test as Paris is plunged deeper into the Depression and many expatriate friends return to America. As she faces painful personal and financial crises, Sylvia–a woman who has made it her mission to honor the life-changing impact of books–must decide what Shakespeare and Company truly means to her.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, France – Paris; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, LGBTQIA+, Writers.
First of all, let me get two things out of the way. First, I found a very bad mistake show up early in the book, which sadly wasn’t caught (and appeared more than once). The mistake is regarding the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This story starts out in 1917, and Maher has Sylvia taken there by Adrienne to see a particular painting. The problem is that this museum was only founded in 1986, and opened in late 1987. In 1917 it was still a railway station, so they couldn’t have gone to see a painting there back then. Second, I have a particular pet peeve regarding name dropping in historical fiction novels. Yes, I understand that biographical books like this one will have quite a few mentions of other real-life personalities. However, if these names show up too much, for me, it can detract from the essence of the story at hand. Maher came dangerously close to frustrating me in this respect (I actually DNF two books last year because of too much name dropping). Thankfully, Maher was able to pull some of this back, and allow Sylvia to remain the main focus here.
That said, my first reason for wanting to read this book is because I enjoyed Maher’s two previous novels. My second reason is because – hello! The Shakespeare & Co. bookstore! I’ve been to the “new” shop, dedicated to the original one, and it is a truly wonderful place. So, to read about the woman who established the original one was just fascinating. Obviously, Maher decided to focus her story on the time in Sylvia’s life prior to the outbreak of WWII, starting from the very humble beginnings and the majority of the years this shop was open, which I think was very wise of her.
There are four parts to this novel. The first and last parts focus mostly on Sylvia; her opening the shop, her relationship with Adrienne, and the difficult times for booksellers between the world wars. The second part, however, has a greater emphasis on her work to get James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” published, which was no small feat, together with the aftermath of that release in the third part of this book. Some of the problems arose when it was initially banned in the US for being “obscene.” Remember, this was a time when American was dealing with some very conservative people in government (heard of Prohibition?), and they actually enlisted the post office to help them censor banned books. That this book shop would go so far as to undertake publishing this controversial book was fascinating to read about, and Maher allows us to get to know more about Sylvia as well as become familiar with this iconic Irish writer. Now, I’m not going to go out and read that book, even though I enjoyed his short stories, mostly because I had a hard time with his Portrait of an Artist, so I think a brick like this isn’t for me.
This made me realize that the middle two parts had a different feel to them than the first and last ones did. Now, I don’t mean this in a bad way – the whole book is really nicely written, and exactly what I expected from Maher. However, it felt like all the “action” came during the second part, and that the tension faded away a bit too slowly until the end of the third part. This also meant that the last part felt like a conclusion that was a bit longer than necessary, although no less interesting – just… calmer – sort of like a cool down after a hard workout. All told, I really enjoyed this book, and it brought back my memories of visiting there myself. So, I will warmly recommend this novel with a very healthy four out of five stars.
Berkeley (of the Penguin Publishing Group) released “The Paris Bookseller” by Kerri Maher on January 11, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), 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 and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#1 – this is also my sign-up post for this challenge), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#1 – because I really shouldn’t count the Stevenson book).