13, RUE THERESE by Elena Mauli Shapiro

Book Quote:

“His eyes are slightly widened in the picture as if he is startled to find himself captured there. She is convinced that she sees the necessary gleam of yearning in those eyes; she thinks she can help this yearning.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (MAR 25, 2011)

In Paris-born Shapiro’s first novel, a young visiting American professor, Trevor Stratton, catches the attention of his prospective Parisian secretary, Josianne, not for his scholarship in 19th-century French literature, but for his poetry translations: “A translator, caught in the space between two tongues.”

In hopes that he is a little different (and after an appreciative look at his photograph), Josianne places a box with a red-checked cover in an empty file cabinet in his new office.

Stratton will open the box and be increasingly enthralled by its contents – letters, mementos and photographs dating from the late 19th-century to WWII, mostly WWI and after – belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet.

A real woman, as it happens, and the box of keepsakes is real too. Shapiro grew up at 13 rue Therèse, downstairs from Louise Brunet, whose box she kept after the old lady died and no relatives arrived to claim it. The mementos illustrate the book, each appearing in color in the text as Stratton handles it. The illustrations can also be seen more crisply and in larger format at the novel’s website : www.13ruetherese.com, along with Stratton’s accompanying notes, and several brief videos and audio files.

This sounds gimmicky, but it works, particularly because the box is real, although Shapiro’s story is fiction. She was a little girl when she acquired the box in the 1980s and did not know the dead woman.

Stratton muses over each memento, Louise growing more real to him as he fits her story together in his mind, from the letters from a lover at the front in WWI, including a 1915 marriage proposal, and the photos he, her brother and her father sent of themselves in trenches, to the miniature appointment calendar from 1928 and a photo of her father in 1944, shortly before his death.

Stratton addresses his increasingly fevered notes to an unnamed “Dear Sir,” which seems an odd salutation, given his personal tone and his missives’ increasingly intimate nature. But the novel is a puzzle of sorts and all will come clear in the end, including Josianne’s motives.

Most of the action takes place in 1928, when a new family moves into the building. Louise, married to a nice, but not passionate man, already has a rich fantasy life. She sometimes goes to church to tell salacious lies to the priest hearing confessions and in 1928, fearful of being forever childless, Louise takes her longings a step further.

Or Stratton does. Their lives become intertwined so that the reader, immersed in Louise’s dangerous, romantic year, never really knows for sure if the story is hers or Stratton’s imaginings.

As events unfold, Louise’s thoughts range back and forth in time. Each memento takes on greater significance as deep emotional contexts are revealed, and the 20th century’s early history acquires flesh and blood.

The plot organization is complex and sometimes distancing, when the reader is reminded that the whole thing may simply be Stratton’s fevered imagination. This is risky, given the gut-wrenching revelations and growing personal intensity of Louise’s story. But Shapiro pulls it off; creating a dramatic, multi-layered, sexy story that should appeal to a wide range of readers.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (February 2, 2011)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Elena Mauli Shapiro
EXTRAS: 13, rue Thérèse website

Reading Guide and Excerpt

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another novel which uses photos to drive a story:

The Rain Before the Fall by Jonathan Coe

Three Farmers on Their Way to the Dance by Richard Powers


March 25, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, France, Unique Narrative

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