This book is a delightful, quirky, (slightly wandering) gem of a novel that is one-third love story, one-third adventure story, and one-third journey of self-discovery. It is one hundred percent wonderful!
In Bookshop, we meet our main character Jean Perdu, the proprietor of a bookstore that resides upon an old, permanently-moored barge. Jean, however, does far more than sell books; he finds them homes. Referred to throughout the novel as a psychic, a soul reader, miracle worker, Jean sees himself as a literary pharmacist. He looks deep into the hearts and minds of his customers, and often unsuspecting passersby, and gives them a book to heal what is ailing their souls. He prescribes readers books that “treat the feelings and afflictions of inner life, those not recognized and never diagnosed by doctors because they are intangible. He was able to discern what each soul lacked.” While he looks to cure patrons of heartache, melancholy, and loneliness, he also treats their other ailments: nostalgia for childhood, a need for adventure for the stifled, a need for frivolity for the serious, a need for blood thirst for those with “intense emotions to release,” the need for patience among women with “recently retired husband syndrome,” or perhaps the need for erotica among the long- ago widowed.
Jean Perdu, however, cannot prescribe books for his own heartache. We find him at the opening of the book living the austere life of a monk — no music, no friendships, no love, no wine or good food — with his heart locked away: “He had spent more than twenty years on the far side of the bank of the river, avoiding color, caresses, scents, and music… he has fossilized alone and defiantly withdrawn.” For two decades he has pined for a woman who he deeply loved but who left him to marry another. When a new tenant moves into his building and an old love letter resurfaces, it is as if Perdu can no longer hold on to his frozen life. The dam begins to break and soon he begins to long for all the things he has denied himself for so long. “It is a safe life, but it is shit,” he tells us.
Perdu unleashes his book barge and steers his boat towards the south of France, to the town where his long-lost love left him for life with another. Setting sail along with Perdu is Max Jordan, his young neighbor and a first-time author seeking to escape his sudden celebrity and the pressure he is under to write another best seller. The two cast off with nothing but the companionship of one another and the healing powers of the books surrounding them on the boat. Somehow, that is more than enough to fuel their trip south.
As they journey south from Paris, we are gifted with gorgeous descriptions of the French countryside and its charming inhabitants. We are also gifted with the growing friendship between the two men who have embarked on a journey that is equal parts humorous adventure and profound self-discovery. Perdu and Max are reawakened to the magic alive in the world and begin to open themselves to love, passion, and inspiration they have been lacking. Joining them are a handful of colorful characters who are also on their own quest for love and happiness. Each stop and each new friend unlocks some long neglected part of Jean’s soul, and he throws his arms open wide, welcoming back grief, pain, and longing but also laughter, music, and friendship. As his barge moves south he is brought back to life.
On its surface, this book is a love letter to books. Reading and books have an almost magical power over the characters; they can — if found and read at the right time — change their lives. Books open their hearts and expose their deepest desires, force them to see the world from another’s perspective, or even require them change their minds when the truth is revealed. We, the readers, are affected too, not just the characters in the story. Perhaps books will show us our longing for adventure, or our desperate need for quietude, or the truth that our small love is no longer a good fit for the life of big love that we pine for. When correctly prescribed, books pull off our blindfolds and pry the boards loose from our boarded up hearts and bring us fully awake. “Reading is an endless journey, a long never-ending journey that makes one more temperate as well as more loving and kind. Each book allows us to absorb more of the world, its things and its people.”
At its very core, however, this book is a love letter to Love. It is a story about love found, love lost, love longed for, love sought after, and most of all, the love that we welcome into our hearts even though it terrifies us to do so. Perdu tells us, “you will find yourself again in love, but only if you get lost on the way. Completely lost, lost in love, lost in longing and lost in fear.” It is this real love that the characters are all searching for, and this story’s true center is their realization that love read about in stories is not enough. It is only through action, risk-taking, and full commitment that Love can be found. “Books can do many things but not everything. We have to live the important things, not read them. We have to experience our own books.”
George’s Bookshop is a wonderful story that will fill your heart full to bursting and reignite in you the belief that love is out there waiting for us all, love that will we find in books and the Love we will find by opening ourselves up to life’s experiences.