I picked this novel up at a used bookstore a few years ago and never got around to reading it. It just sounded sweet and the cover is super cozy looking, but for some reason it never called out to me as my “next read.” During the last meeting for my long-distance book club, I was excited to tell my fellow members that I was officially offered a job with my local library (I am so psyched to work more with books)! And it’s part time, so I still get to teach puberty and other health classes around the state and coach CrossFit – my perfect set-up. Anyways, to celebrate we decided to read a book about books (or readers or libraries or writers) and this was the winner. What a fun reason and way to get a backlist TBR book read.
“…books, the only remedy for countless, undefined afflictions of the soul.”
Monsieur Perdu is a self-proclaimed literary apothecary, a bookseller from Paris “prescribing” reads to his customers to fix their various ailments. And yet, for the last twenty years, he has ignored his own needs. Still in mourning over a lover that left him, an encounter with a new neighbor rekindles his emotional investment in other people and prompts him to open a letter from his lost love…a letter sent twenty years ago, but never read. What he learns prompts him to set off on a sudden journey to the south of France to, hopefully, make peace with his loss and his own failings. Along the way, he meets a number of companions, some who join him for parts of the journey, and he begins to re-open his heart to feeling the pain of living, but also the joy, and maybe even love, of life as well.
This was a lovely little adventure/fable of a story about grief and love. Perdu starts this novel alone and all boarded up against feelings and connections and by the end, he’s traveled through all the hurt and come out the other side ready to accept that as part of life and choosing to continue living with/despite it. That’s such a universal and important message. And, of course, the role that books and words play in this journey, from his job to his relationships with other people to his personal quest of finding the secretive author of his favorite book to his friend Max’s career as a writer to his lost love’s diaries, is deep and pervasive and very recognizable to anyone who also loves books. In addition, one my absolute favorite things about this book was the many forms of love it celebrated, without prejudice or judgement. Perdu’s all-encompassing love for Manon, Manon’s polyamory, Perdu and Catherine as each other’s “second” loves (with full acceptance of the role of the firsts), Salvo’s pining/searching love, Perdu and Max’s sort of adopted father-son situation, the mother for child love that Manon displays, Perdu’s parents exasperated and tumultuous (but in the end, accepting) love for each other, Samy and Salvo’s bright/sudden/strong love, Max’s first/young love (no spoilers for who it’s with though)… Honestly, they were all wonderful and this aspect of the book was definitely a highlight for me. Plus, the ending, the way many of the characters and stories all came together to create a new kind of adopted/adapted love and family, it was such a warming finale (if marginally too perfect).
There were also some things that I felt didn’t quite fit or sit right, as I read. The main thing was the writing. At the beginning, it just felt like it was trying to hard to be magical and mystical and instead came off as choppy. It took me longer than I wanted to find a flow and that prevented me from getting truly invested in the story and characters for too long. It evened out (or I got used to it) eventually, but it took too long. (Note: there is potential for this to be due to the fact that the book was translated, but it could just as likely be a stylistic choice by the author.) And yet, even with that, there were some absolutely gorgeous and spot on passages and moments, where the words described things I felt deeply, so I appreciate those moments mixed in. Another weird thing, for me, was the way many aspects (Perdu’s ability to “read” others) and connections (Samy and Salvo) just…fell off. It was strange and also, when they came back towards the end, seemed a bit forced maybe? Maybe no one else noticed or cared about this. The whole novel was written in a sort “bigger than normal life”/“not real” way – perhaps allegorical or perhaps just escapist – about overcoming grief and the adventure of doing so and the characters that help along the way, so maybe it fit the style. I’m just not sure about it. Also, I was marginally disappointed in the “literary apothecary” situation and how big (or lack thereof) a role it played in the story. Like, I love that kind of magical realism and I wanted more. Instead, this book starts almost right in line with when Perdu stops working in that role. And I get that this was about the “doctor” finding/taking his own medicine, and that’s all good, but I can’t help my personal reactions about it.
In the spirit of Monsieur Perdu’s own literary apothecary abilities, I would prescribe this book to anyone looking to, truly, travel through the stages of loss and sorrow and come out on the other side with a little hope and a definite readiness to start living again (A sort of fictional, slightly more uplifting, counterpart to Didion’s nonfiction about loss/grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking.) It’s not a cure for that grief, but it is definitely a balm, and a heartwarming opportunity to experience that the way through, while painful, is worth it to get to the acceptance and open-heartedness on the other side. And, I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking to read a book that is a love letter to books, who wants to be assured that there are so many others out there for whom books have been a comfort, a lifesaver, a constant.
There were some gorgeous quotes in this novel. Enjoy some of them:
“I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.”
“He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by books. They would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers. They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world. In life. In love. After death.”
“And old emotions always linger for a while among the new ones. That’s just how humans are.”
“We cannot decide to love. We cannot compel anyone to love us. There’s no secret recipe, only love itself. And we are at its mercy – there’s nothing we can do.”
“When the stars imploded billions of years ago, iron and silver, gold and carbon came raining down. And the iron from that stardust is in us today – in our mitochondria. Mothers pass on the stars and their iron to their children. Who knows, […] you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognize each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.”
“Loving requires so much courage and so little expectation.”
“Death doesn’t matter. It makes no difference to life. We will always remain what we were to one another.”