“Sanary says that you have to travel south by water to find answers to your dreams. He says too that you find yourself again there, but only if you get lost on the way – completely lost. Through love. Through longing. Through fear. Down south they listen to the sea in order to understand that laughing and crying sound the same, and that the soul sometimes needs to cry to be happy. ” (p79 – The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George)
Books about Paris are a dime a dozen. With absolutely no facts or figures at my fingertips – other than referring to the plethora of Paris-based flights-of-fancy listed on Packabook – I’d have to say that Paris might just be the number one location for anyone looking to write novels about ‘exotic’ locations. And hey – I’m not knocking it. I’m as big a sucker for a book about Paris as the next Packabooker. You can find more than 100 of them here if you are so inclined.
But I’m delighted to say, that despite its title, The Little Paris Bookshop is not about Paris. No Siree – I’d like to suggest it’s about something even better. It’s about a journey in a barge along the waterways of France FROM Paris all the way down to a coastal utopia in Provence. And that my dear friends, is just about my idea of literary paradise. Oh – and there’s the added bonus that the barge is full of books. Sigh…..
Nina George’s novel takes us to so many places I’m itching to visit, that I’d need a book of my own to write about them all, so I will concentrate on a few of my favorites. This is just a taster, though. You’ll need to read the novel yourself to find out all the other fantabulous potential holiday destinations.
To set the scene – a little about the story…
Jean Perdu is a sad man. For 21 years he’s been wrapping his broken heart up in tissue paper after the love of his life walked out the door of his Paris apartment. And while he makes lots of other people happy with his sensitive and insightful book recommendations (he owns Lulu, a barge bookstore on the River Seine), he can hardly be said to be living anything near a full life. But then a potential love interest appears on the horizon and he receives some news which forces him to question everything he has known about the past. So he decides to unmoor himself from the present, and take himself, Lulu, and two semi-resident cats on a long journey.
The rest you will discover as Jean makes his meandering journey south, picking up some highly entertaining strays along the way, all the while pondering the important questions of life and love. There’s also a few giggles to stop it all getting TOO heavy. When people talk about novels which ‘warm the cockles of your heart’, trust me, this is one. Suitably quirky, well-developed characters, gentle humor, a warm embrace – this book has all of it. And then of course, there are the divine destinations…
Cuisery (a book town on the river Seille in Burgundy)
“Oh, Cuisery! An avid reader will lose his heart here. The whole village is crazy about books – or crazy period – but that’s not unusual. Virtually every shop is a bookstore, a printer’s, a bookbinder’s, a publisher’s, and many of the houses are artists’ workshops. The place is buzzing with creativity and imagination.” (p193)
The book town of Cuisery – Image courtesy of Village du Livre de Cuisery
I thought this must have been a made up place, but it’s not. There really is a ‘town of books’ called Cuisery.
On the first Sunday of each month there is a book market, and the rest of the time, the town is filled with shops renowned for their rare book collections, comics, illuminated manuscripts and other such collectables. The people of Cuisery all get into short story competitions, poetry readings and literary meetings, and in the summer you can even visit a workshop where they print on a 15th century Gutenberg Press.
It seems that in the 1990s Cuisery had a chronic shop closure problem and so the locals decided to offer the empty stores to book sellers and book craftspeople. The result is this tempting little book village. They also do some heavy trade in vinyl records and have lots of summer concerts – just in case you are dragging along a partner who is more a music person than a book person (I speak from experience!) Here’s the town Facebook Page so you can keep up with all their bookish news.
Bonnieux (paradise in Provence)
“‘Bonnieux rises in a stack between the Grand Luberon and the Petit Luberon. Like a five-layered cake,’ Manon had told Perdu. ‘At the very top, the old church and the hundred-year old cedars and the most scenic cemetery in the Luberon. Down at the bottom, the wine-growers, the fruit farmers and the holiday homes. And between them three layers of houses and restaurants. All connected by steep paths and stairs, which explains why all the village girls have such gorgeous strong calves.’ She had shown Jean hers, and he had kissed them.” (p225)
Bonnieux is perhaps one of those places you would never come across if it wasn’t for a novel like The Little Paris Bookshop. And George makes it sounds like an ideal base for your next Provence adventure. You can even eat at the actual restaurant visited by Jean Perdu which “had a wonderful view of the valley and of a red-and-gold sunset that gave way to a clear night sky strewn with stars glistening like ice.” (p270). At time of writing Un p’tit Coin de Cuisine is Trip Advisor’s fifth favorite restaurant in Bonnieux and attracts some rave reviews, though some found the service a little slow. (But hey, who wants to rush things when you are in The Luberon!)
And when I happened across this video about Bonnieux – I’m afraid I was totally hooked. Bonnieux – here I come! Have you ever seen such a happy town?
Sanary-Sur-Mer (a literary refuge by the sea)
“This charming old seafarers’ village: daylight made the colors blossom: by night it was lit by the wide starry sky, and in the evening by the soft rosy light of old-fashioned lanterns. Over there the market with its yellow-and-red awnings under lush plane trees. Around them, soothed by the sun and the sea, people reclined dreamily in their chairs at countless tables in old bars and new cafés.” (p237)
But if I had to pick just one place to visit from this novel, I think it might just be Sanary-Sur-Mer. What a gorgeous place George has introduced us to with this Provencal port town; my only concern being that every man and his poodle is going to want to go there after reading this book!
Not only does Sanary have 280 days of sunshine each year and enticing beaches and vineyards just a hop, skip and jump away, it also has important literary associations.
During the 1930s, German and Austrian writers, artists and intellectuals fleeing the Nazis took refuge in Sanary. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Zweig were among them, while English authors including Aldous Huxley and D.H.Lawrence also based themselves along Sanary’s welcoming shores. But once World War Two was declared in 1939, the exiles were considered enemy aliens, many sent to internment camps. Later some ended up in Nazi concentration camps.
On your own visit to Sanary you can spend your days doing as the exiles did, drinking coffee in the cafes on the harbor. Or you could join a walking tour which takes you to some of the places the writers liked to hang out. You can even rest your head in the hotel that many of them stayed in before discovering their own places to rent. (It’s worth taking advice from TripAdvisor though, on which rooms to ask for).
You will of course need another couple of books to take with you. German-born English writer Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel Jigsaw is part set in Sanary, while her memoir Quicksands includes further details of her time living there in the 1930s.
But I want to go on a barge!
“The river wound its way in stately loops through woods and parks. The banks were lined with grand, rambling grounds surrounding houses that hinted at old money and family secrets.” (p87)
I know, it just doesn’t seem right to visit these places in a car when the French waterways have been so temptingly revealed to us by Jean Perdu and his quirky companions. Traveling by barge allows you to meander your way through riverside back yards with a glass of wine in your hand and a straw hat perched prettily on your head rather than pelt down toll-ridden (though exceptionally well-maintained) French highways.
Fortunately there are many barges just ripe for the renting. I suspect finding a company which will follows Perdu’s exact journey might be a bit of a challenge, but you can certainly do some of your favorite parts of it. This one for example, is in Burgundy and goes to Cuisery, or you could speak to The Barge Lady who can apparently help you negotiate the multitude of barging options available so you find your ideal journey. If you come across one that follows the trail of the novel – please do let me know – how fantastic would that be?
Unfortunately I haven’t come across a floating hotel BOOK barge yet – but I think it is a business opportunity just waiting to happen! Anyone up for it?
What can I tell you? I loved this book. I loved the characters, the pace, the scenery – all of it. My only disappointment is that it was written by a woman. The male characters are so loveable that I want to believe there are male writers out there who could create them. Not this time, unfortunately. But don’t let this put you off. If you believe in love and whimsy, in friendship and new beginnings, in taking the time to breath and ingest the world around you – or even if you just enjoy the south of France – then I think you will relish it as well. Yes, it will tug on your heartstrings, yes, you will feel things all wrap up too nicely, yes, you have to have half a belief in romance and sweetness and light – but sometimes, that is exactly what I want from a novel, and The Little Paris Bookshop provides it.
P.S. This book was gifted to me by the wonderful Poppy at Little,Brown so that I could read and review it for you. I think you know me well enough to understand this would not influence my views on the book – if anything it generally makes me a little tougher! Even if Poppy is obviously a very nice person…