Review: Au Bon Roman by Laurence Cossé
First things first: you can get an English translation of this book here, translated by Alison Anderson under the title A Novel Bookstore (and, incidentally, the cover is way prettier than the French paperback version).
Next first things first - the premise of this book is absolutely ludicrous, but if you can lean into that, this is a very enjoyable book. It's about two people who are sick of seeing nothing but the new bestseller books in bookstores, with no emphasis on good literature, so they decide to open up their own bookstore where they will only sell novels they consider 'great'. They pick eight authors they admire, give them code names and ask them to submit their list of six hundred best novels; an everyone goes from there. Obviously, the bookstore is hugely successful and so starts getting vilified across social media and the newspapers and the French cultural scene for being 'elitist' and 'snobby'. The incipient narrative of the novel is attempts to threaten and intimidate three of the secret members of the selection committee, and everything goes from there.
Now, I do love a good metafiction. Books about books are a very niche, specific, usually ridiculous subgenre, and nobody does metafiction quite like the Europeans (the Spanish are particularly good at it - check out Arturo Peréz Reverte and Carlos Ruiz Zafón; the latter's The Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite books of all time). This one blends thriller and mystery with literary criticism and philosophy - it's got a mysterious, unidentified narrator and a back-and-forth chronology and suspicious muggings and people following novelists around and code names and spies and secret agents using the internet to send scurrilous messages and it is all absolutely bonkers and delightful.
There are a few drawbacks that kept this from being a five-star read for me: the main female character of Francesca is soapy and melodramatic, and all her dialogue are oblique, ambiguous attempts at poetic pathos, which starts off interesting and mysterious and ends up being very grating and annoying. I also didn't like that we never find out who the narrator is - it creates another layer of messy unresolvedness that does not pair well with the fact that the central mystery also never really comes to a conclusion (I don't want to go more into it because I don't want to spoil it). Also, the characters other than the central characters float around a bit, without ever really feeling like they are more than superfluous to the narrative.
However, the writing is really lovely throughout the book - clear, precise, with some well-worked metaphor and a lot of philosophizing that still translates to a very easily readable book. The characters of Ivan and Anis were also much better-drawn than Francesca: they were more nuanced and more fully realized rather than idealized, and they had some truly wonderful character development that followed the story arc that was lacking in Francesca. That was the standout of Cossé's writing - that the style was quite advanced, but it was still compulsively readable. I also fully buy into the premise that she's basing the entirety of the plot on: that people desperately want good literature, and will go to whoever is claiming to offer it. I also really enjoyed the subtlety 0f her critique of the so-called 'gatekeepers' of literature - that only a set few people are allowed to decide what is a great novel, and we are all supposed to follow those directives without questioning them, or trying to come up with our own list or ideas. It also made me think about my own list of the best 600 novels - and reader, let me say, I will be posting that list on this blog when I've finished it.
All in all, this was a lovely, sweet, very enjoyable novel with some standout quality of writing - just expect to have to do quite a bit of suspicion of disbelief. As much as I believe that good writing and a bookstore where you can only buy great novels is something that absolutely should exist even if it doesn't make any commercial sense, I know I am in the minority on that.
And if you're into metafiction as much as I am, another good recommendation list of books about books is Book Riot's, here.