Saturday, March 05, 2022

Kerri Maher's The Paris Bookseller celebrates Sylvia Beach, publisher and bookshop owner in 1920s literary Paris

In a novel exuberant, bittersweet, and reflective by turns, Maher explores the life of Sylvia Beach, doyenne of the American expat literary scene during the interwar years as proprietress of the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Unlike many writers whose work she championed, Beach may not be a household name, but the story gives her her due, recognizing that it takes a special talent to create a space where art can thrive.

In 1919, Sylvia arrives in the French capital, content to breathe the air of this “most rare and wonderful of places.” She finds a spiritual home at the bookshop of Adrienne Monnier, a young raven-haired Parisian to whom she’s attracted. Adrienne is already attached, but she and her partner welcome Sylvia to their literary life.

An admirer of the unabashed honesty of Kate Chopin and James Joyce, Sylvia discovers her true m├ętier lies in supporting the power of art to “be new, to make change, to alter minds.” Establishing her own bookstore and lending library sets her on this path, making her store a magnet for the literati.

The atmosphere feels effervescent with creativity, though after obstacles to Sylvia’s dreams fall away (she and Adrienne become a couple at last), the story lacks conflict. Momentum increases once Sylvia takes up the challenge of publishing the manuscript of Joyce’s Ulysses herself, since the work is deemed obscene in the United States.

The ways she and her friends circumvent would-be censors to get the book into American readers’ hands are brilliant. Joyce may be a genius, but he has definite character flaws, and the story offers a deep look at their complicated relationship and Sylvia’s own emotions as she questions how much she should give of herself in indulging him. In the end, readers will emerge with sincere appreciation for the artistic spirit and courage of a remarkable woman.

The Paris Bookseller was published by Berkley last month, and I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.  Historical fiction about librarians and booksellers has become popular; unsurprisingly, readers love reading about other people who appreciate books and literature. Read more about the story behind the book in Trish MacEnulty's interview with the author for the same HNR issue.

2 comments:

  1. I read Jeremy Mercer's "Time Was Soft Here" in 2016, about Beach's store in later times, and although the Paris setting and bookshop life were interesting, the lifestyles portrayed were fairly aimless, kind of bookish vagabonds. This new look sounds more historical - thanks for the review!

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    1. I haven't come across that book before - thanks for mentioning it. The atmosphere in the store's later years does sound interesting, though different.

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