Groucho Marx said that outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Franz Kafka said that a book is the ice-ax for the frozen sea within us.
Jean Perdu says that books are both medic and medicine.
And Monsieur Perdu would know, because he runs a Literary Apothecary.
If you go down to his bookshop, housed in a floating barge moored in the Seine, you won't merely purchase a book. When you enter that doorway, you will be evaluated and assessed by the sensitive ear and eye of Mr. Perdu. He's not even sure how he does it, but somehow he can guess you fears and longings, and he knows which words you need to read. Some books are to help you cry, some to help you hope, some to impart new strength, some to wash away unworthy dreams. He will choose a book for you, much like a physician may prescribe a tonic or salve.
And Jean has taken plenty of his own medicine. For the past twenty years, he's dosed himself daily with the literature that surrounds him. And it seems to be working- he's not having any emotional breakdowns, at any rate. So why does he feel only partly alive? Why did the important part of his world stop twenty years ago, when Manon left him?
The core of this book is a journey, a casting off into the unknown, led by a letter. A letter twenty years out of date, that Jean finally reads. And it's a letter that he longs to answer, and can't bear to, all at once.
Like most good stories, it's a misfit bunch that ends up coming together at just the right moments.
There's Max Jordan, who shadows Jean and drives him nearly crazy. Max is a best-selling author at ridiculously young age, and the oppressive fame has driven all his creativity into hiding.
Catherine is recently divorced, in need of a literary prescription and a kitchen table for a bare apartment. Jean supplies both.
Cuneo- well, he's inexplicable. But he knows food. "I'm a firm believer," he says, "that you have to taste a country's soul to understand it and to grasp its people. And by soul I mean what grows there, what it's people see and smell and touch every day, what travels through them and shapes them from the inside out."
Most importantly, the characters each had a fate that mattered to me as a reader. There's a lot to think about when you finish this story. Have they found what they were looking for? Does it work that way- you find it once, or do you have to find it every day?
Why did they do the things they did- and what did the learn about love?
Jean had leaned so heavily on literature all those years, guarding his heart from relationships.
All those years when Jean guarded his heart, he lived off of literature instead.
Was it books that kept him human? When he thought he'd barred the door against loss, was it literature that steadily, relentlessly taught him love, until the day he'd begin to love humans again?
Is that what the best literature does for us, the words become flesh?
I thank Blogging for Books for my review copy.