For the first hundred or so pages of this book, translated from French, I thought the story was unrealistic and off-putting, but there was something about it that kept me reading on. The enthusiasm of the two main characters, Van and Francesca, as they prepared to open their "perfect" bookstore in Paris was contagious. A bookstore with only the best books on offer. Best books, that is, as defined by some of the "best" authors in France. Each one would provide a list of several hundred of his or her favorite titles. The authors would remain anonymous to avoid criticism and hounding.
Why did I originally find this off-putting? Don't I own a mystery bookstore? Isn't it great that someone wants to open an independent specialty bookstore? It wasn't the concept per se, but how the bookstore was coming together. Financial backer and book lover Francesca tore into a vacant space she just happened to have and put in specially designed shelves, seating areas, and an office. Let me say that last thing again ... an office. My "office" consists of a tiny computer desk and chair (regular-sized) in the middle of the store. Customers have to walk around me, apologizing for scooting by. Francesca arranges publicity and advertising for opening day. Our advertising consists of a white board on the sidewalk with artwork done by whichever employee isn't fast enough to outrun me. Oh, fine, you're saying, "sour grapes," and it might be so. But it doesn't negate the impracticality of the bookstore's setup, considering their limited titles and limited number of copies of those titles. (Yes, Cossé tells you the number of copies.)
And what happened to the mystery? The book began just fine. A couple of the authors on the committee, ostensibly anonymous, are maliciously attacked. Although they survive, Van and Francesca worry that other committee members may be next. They wonder how the authors' identities were discovered. So far, so good for the mystery portion, but then "Part Two" begins and the only mystery is about who is telling the story. It appears at first glance that it's a normal third-person narrative, but a mysterious "I" pops up every now and then. This unidentified "I" tells the story of Van and Francesca telling their stories to a police detective, the mysterious (and not very French-sounding) Heffner. For most of the book they tell the patient Heffner the entire -- and I mean entire -- story of how they met, conceived of the bookstore, and began to implement their plan.
Although there was no mystery again until about two-thirds of the way through, I got caught up in the minutiae of bookstore life. Yes, I was finally hooked. What mural should they paint on their walls? (Ours is natural spiderweb.) Why did they leave their overstock in boxes in their storeroom? Didn't they ever want to be able to find anything? Intriguing.
Then there is that annoying romance Van has with Anis, a young woman with commitment phobia in the extreme. Why is that even in the book? What does it have to do with the injured authors? Maybe Anis is the culprit! I perked up again. But there is a passion in the book that is not merely book-related. Although I was amused in many respects by A Novel Bookstore -- a nicely double-entendred title -- it is not a funny book. All the characters are passionate or strangely dispassionate and determinedly serious. The mystery picks up again when the bookstore is accused in the press and on the internet as elitist. Suddenly, Van and Francesca go from being the darlings of Paris to defending their right to have an opinion about what constitutes a good book. Terms like proletariat and leftist are thrown around. How French!
In the end, I was very satisfied with the convoluted but tidy resolution. The narrator's voice gradually becomes stronger and there is a quiet unmasking. Reticences and passions are explained. C'est le livre!