For anyone who loves good books, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé is a must-read mystery. Two French bibliophiles establish a book store based on a premise somewhat like the one that Sunny uses to select books for “Bookin With Sunny.” They will stock and advocate the very best and most provocative novels—not the formula fiction, not the best-sellers, not the authors advertised everywhere. Unlike Sunny, their stock will include the classics, but important new novels are a key part of the mix, too. French fiction is the focus; books from other countries are welcome. As Francesca explains, “We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage, which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention the disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable.”
Eight panelists separately select six hundred novels apiece. Francesca and Ivan collate the lists, adding further choices of their own. Then they open their new enterprise, called ‘A Good Novel,’ and wait for customers who appear in droves. Apparently there are more good book addicts in Paris than anyone had imagined. Soon, however, the euphoria vanishes. The booksellers are accused of elitism. “Who are these kapos who have the nerve to place their seal of approval on this book and not that one.… What gives them the right?” A feeding frenzy against ‘A Good Novel’ occurs on-line and in the media. Worse yet, one by one, the anonymous panelists—all gifted novelists in their own rights—are falling prey to mysterious accidents. Coincidence? Or a carefully concerted plan to put ‘A Good Novel’ permanently out of business?
The authorities take a polite interest in the case, but one policeman in particular, an avid reader, listens carefully and steadfastly investigates. Gonzague Heffner understands what’s at stake, expounding to Ivan and Francesca, “for vaguely idealistic reasons, we have not yet come to realize, and are loath to suspect, that artistic creation, and all the infrastructure surrounding its production and promotion, can also be an extremely hateful forcefield, impelled most often by envy and, in France anyway, the usual weapons of ideological discredit.” Sifting through an array of jealous novelists whose inferior books cannot be found in ‘A Good Novel,’ plus a number of publishing houses wedded to the status quo of touting only their best-selling authors, and the occasional disenfranchised literary critic, Heffner searches for the person or persons responsible for the onslaught against good literary taste.
At the same time, there’s another mystery taking place in the pages of A Novel Bookstore. Who is the narrator? Only after four hundred and sixteen pages is the answer revealed. There are minor mysteries, too, mostly centered on the relationships between the characters and their personal interactions. This lends depth to the story, but the real heart of the matter is the conundrum of what constitutes a “good novel.” What is the criteria, and who decides? Not so easy to answer, as it turns out.
I wish I knew more about French fiction, for I suspect there’s a lot to be learned from the names and titles that occur throughout. Even so, while I read I did a lot of thinking about what English and American and other international writers I’d include on my own list of six hundred, and who I would omit. For starters, I’d recommend Laurence Cosse’s A Novel Bookstore. And many other “Bookin With Sunny” novels as well. Then again, ‘what gives them the right’? — A.R.