Thursday, March 3, 2011
As Trevor examines and documents the relics the box offers up, he begins to imagine the story of Louise Brunet's life: her love for a cousin who died in the war, her marriage to a man who works for her father, and her attraction to a neighbor in her building at 13 rue Thérèse. The more time he spends with the objects though, the truer his imaginings of Louise's life become, and the more he notices another alluring Frenchwoman: Josianne, his clerk, who planted the box in his office in the first place, and with whom he finds he is falling in love. -- Reagan Arthur
13, RUE THERESE by Elena Mauli Shapiro is truly unlike any fictional book I've ever encountered. In fact, I'm having a difficult time even trying to describe this novel. It's part historical fiction, part biography (well kind of..), part love story, and part puzzle. It also takes place in the present and the past, and there even might be a wee bit of a magical twist (or at least that's one way to interpret it!) 13, RUE THERESE was an interesting and surprising read for me, and I thought it was extremely refreshing.
And I do think that's why I appreciated 13, RUE THERESE so much -- it was so unusual and different. After I finished reading this book, I wanted to discuss it with someone -- I was kind of blown away. I'd love to tell you exactly what I was thinking, but I truly believe that the less you know about this novel, the more you will appreciate it.
Much of 13, RUE THERESE tells the story of Louise, a Frenchwoman living in Paris after WWI. Louise's story is beautifully written and I found her to be an extremely interesting woman -- and in some ways, ahead of her time. It was through Louise's story that the author used the scanned images of real mementos, and I absolutely adored how much these photos brought Louise to life for me.
However, 13 RUE THERESE also tells the story of Trevor, an American professor who moves to Paris to teach French literature. When he discovers a box of mementos on his desk, he begins to create Louise's story and it becomes less and less clear as the novel progresses what is real and not for Trevor. There is also a slight twist in the story because the reader knows from the start that the box was left by Josianne as a way to "test" Trevor. I told you the plot of this novel is incredibly unique!
I found the background of this novel to be fascinating, and I loved how 13, RUE THERESE evolved into a novel. Suffice it to say that I think I enjoyed the history of the novel almost as much as the story itself. When the author was a child, she and her mother discovered a box of mementos when a woman (the real Louise Brunet) in their apartment building (13, Rue Therese) died. Scanned images of these mementos (photographs, letters, etc.) appeared throughout the novel and much of the plot was driven by these objects. Of course, the author knew almost nothing about this woman and the Louise in the novel is entirely made up, but I do appreciate her creativity and how she effectively used Louise's mementos to tie together her story!
If you want to learn more about this novel, there is a terrific website devoted to 13, RUE THERESE. Since the photographs and mementos in the novel were so interesting to me and one of the reasons that this novel was so special, I was curious to learn more about them. The 13, RUE THERESE website has pages of old photographs, including the ones in the novel and even one of the actual apartment building. In addition, if you click on the explore button, you can learn more about the characters and places in the story. I really thought these "extras" added even more to a novel which was already rich in history and description.
13, RUE THERESE would make a great book club pick. Because this novel is so different, I can guarantee that there won't be a lack of things to address. There is much to discuss about Louise's actions and motivations, but I also think Trevor and Josianne are interesting as well. There is a reading guide available which touches upon some thought-provoking topics including relationships, love, desire, passion, memory, and the effects of war. I also think it would be fascinating to discuss some of the literary devices used in this novel including usage of first person in some places, the effectiveness of the scanned objects, and the use of letters.
Reagan Arthur sent me a note with this novel that 13, RUE THERE was "an unusual and really special (I normally hate that word but it fits!) debut." After reading this novel, I think her words are perfect -- I can't sum it up any better!
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.
NOTE: 13, RUE THERESE is yet another great Reagan Arthur book (so it counts for the Reagan Arthur Books Challenge that Kathy/Bermudaonion and I are hosting.) It's not too late to join us in this perpetual (and stress-free) challenge. And to sweeten the pot, the fine folks at Hachette are graciously offering a copy of 13, RUE THERESE to one new participant. What are you waiting for? Click on this form to join.