13, rue Thérèse: a novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro

13, rue Thérèse: a novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro
Little, Brown and Company, February 2011
ISBN 978-0-316-08328-7

13, rue Thérèse is a most singular novel: perhaps not in subject matter (the reconstruction of a life from mementos and letters), but in style, substance, and subtext.  While it is deeply entrenched in the life (real or imagined?) of a woman who lived in France from the early to mid-1900s, it begins in the present day with Trevor Stratton, a scholar in 19th century French literature from a Californian university, now teaching classes in Paris.

In his new office Trevor finds an unassuming box (surreptitiously left there by the enigmatic office assistant, Josianne) full of love letters, postcards, photographs, and other items belonging to Louise Brunet, an ordinary woman lost to history.  As Trevor uses these keepsakes to reconstruct Louise’s life, however, she becomes not only a mystery to be unraveled, but an increasingly sensual and passionate individual whose life lived against the backdrop of WWI grows more real and compelling with each new discovery.

As the novel progresses, we start to wonder just how it is that Trevor can seem to so easily deviate from perceived fact and conjecture using the evidence from the box to be able to reconstruct so vividly not only Louise’s actions and motivations, but also her imagination and the smoldering sexuality that lies so near to her core.  Before long we’re not sure if we’re listening to Trevor’s voice or seeing through Louise’s eyes as we slip back and forth between events of the early 1900s and the scholarly reports of today.  Trevor’s historical efforts are so well established, and yet so eerily prescient of the past – how could he be assuming so much with so little?

To say much more would rob the reader of the truly enjoyable unfolding of the events of this delightful debut novel, which would be a disservice to Ms. Shapiro’s efforts and talents.  However, I will relate that the items found in this unassuming tin box are not mere props to a dramatic story, but honest keepsakes of a life actually lived, granting the author with a cohesiveness that is immediately compelling – while the story may be imaginary, the life was not.  One can even utilize the appendix to access QR codes leading to 3D renderings of the very items cataloged in the story.  This credibility is layered throughout Ms. Shapiro’s fiction, and makes 13, rue Thérèse eminently readable with a haunting sense of believability even in what we know to be pure fiction.  It’s a wonderfully disorienting and yet solidly grounded read that is in turn sentimental, sobering and seductive.  A great book for those steamy days of summer – or anytime you want to be transported to a different time and place without leaving where you mundanely are.

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~ by arcticwren on June 17, 2011.

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