13 rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro

by |December 31, 2010

When pre-publication copies of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society were passed around a couple of years ago, it was obvious that the book was going to be a hand-sell sensation. And so it proved to be with a great many editions of this lovely war-time confection going on to sell squillions.

13 rue Thérèse has the same feel. Coming for a February release, this book is being presented as a lovely hardback edition. Told as a series of letters and reminiscences, and peppered with illustrations, scraps of sheet music, fading photos, this is a ostensibly a love story, set in the first half of the twentieth century. Build as a story of  “passion, memory and the seductive power of the imagination”, it certainly fulfills the publisher’s spin – it is sophisticated, imaginative, sexy and escapist. A grown-up treat.

David Ebershoff, bestselling author of The 19th Wife, writes that “this is a puzzle-novel and gave me the same fizzy satsifaction as completing a Sunday crossword. It will light up your brain, and your heart”.

All true – 13 rue Thérèse is a most satisfying read. However, to me, these descriptions ignore two really important aspects and to a certain extent, undermine the power of this remarkable novel. Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary more than a century earlier, and Alex Miller’s very fine LoveSong of last year, Shapiro writes with enormous insight about the confusion between a woman’s desire for a child and her desire for a man. At the same time, her descriptions of the horror of the trenches during World War 1, and the lifetime legacy for those who survived, put me in mind of the extremely powerful Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks as well as parts of Louis de Bernières Birds Without Wings and David Malouf’s The Great World. Indeed, 13 rue Thérèse is so much more than a cleverly constructed love story.

I read 13 rue Thérèse in one sitting and I am much the richer for the experience.

From the author:

Elena Mauli Shapiro

When I was a little girl growing up in Paris in the early eighties, an old woman who lived a few floors up from my apartment died alone.  Her name was Louise Brunet.  None of her remaining relatives came to fetch her belongings, so the landlord had to clear them all out.  He let the other tenants in the building scavenge through her stuff and take home silverware, jewelry, whatever they wanted.  My mother salvaged a small box filled with mementos: old love letters from WWI, mesh church gloves, dried flowers, a rosary—many objects worth nothing but memories.  This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.  As I have carried it through life and across the world, I have always intended to write a book out of it.

This book, a novel titled 13 rue Thérèse, now exists, and will be released  in February 2011.  The central story concerns a fictionalized Louise Brunet, who is a married-but-childless piano teacher with a propensity for giving false confessions to priests and other small acts of mischief.  She lost her lover during WWI, and in an attempt to revive the excitement of that relationship, she is quite tempted to have an affair with a new man who moves into her building, named Xavier Langlais.  The narrative frame for the story is named Trevor Stratton, a contemporary American academic working in Paris who comes across Louise’s box of mementos.  Studying the objects has a strange effect on him, and in a fever he channels what may or may not be the life of Louise Brunet over a two-week time period in November of 1928.

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