Let me just start by saying, and don’t ask me why, but if a book has a bookshop in it, then I nearly always like it.
Laure realises how much the little things matter in our modern world when her handbag is violently stolen from her at 2am in the morning right outside her building. She has no key to get into her apartment, she has no phone to call her friends, she has no credit card or money to pay for a room in the motel across from her apartment building. Luckily the elderly gentleman at the counter realises that her story is a truthful one and allows her to stay in a room overnight and pay for it the next day. However, when the next day comes and check out time has been and gone the staff send somebody to her room. They find her in bed, in what appears to be a coma, with blood on her pillow from a head wound.
Laurent’s biggest problem is that his electric shaver is on the fritz and the water has been turned off for the day, leaving his reflection in the mirror looking quite dishevelled. Laurent is the owner of a bookshop that he bought off an old couple when it was a café. Because there is a flat connected to the shop, Laurent makes sure that he goes for a walk each morning for exercise. This morning he is bewildered to find a stylish mauve leather handbag sitting peacefully atop a garbage bin. Because it is enigmatically sitting atop the bin rather than in it, he can not resist the urge to open it and have a quick peek inside. Realising that it is full, and that it will either end up in the garbage when it’s collected, or more likely be stolen again, he decides to hand it in to the police, whose station is only a brisk walk away. At the station he is told to hand it into Lost and Found so for the moment he keeps it.
That night Laurent ponders on whether to look through the bag or not. While deliberating he realises that he has never been through the contents of a woman’s handbag before. It just seems morally wrong, an unwritten rule, and by opening it he will have crossed a line and become one of the persons with dubious scruples.
Hours later he is still reading the red notebook that he found in the handbag. Guiltily he finds himself unable to stop, unable to put it down and stop reading. There is a great passage here,
“He had opened a door into the soul of the woman with the mauve bag and even though he felt what he was doing was inappropriate, he couldn’t stop himself from reading on.”
Amongst the belongings in the bag, Laurent finds a book penned by a reclusive legendary author, an author who hadn’t done any signings or interviews for years, personally signed to the owner of the bag. He now at least knows her first name.
Instead of losing interest in what seems a hopeless case, his obsession to find Laure grows and grows. It’s a format that has been done many times before and needs to be exceptionally written for it to rise above the other books of similar ilk. I am delighted to say that this is the case. As it is such a short novel, I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers, the narrative is brilliantly crafted, but to explain why would spoil the story. A thoroughly enjoyable read, which is very hard to put down once you start.
Antoine Laurain was born in Paris and is a journalist, antiques collector and the author of five novels. The President’s Hat, a charming fable set in the Mitterrand years, was awarded the Prix Landerneau Découvertes and the Prix Relay in 2012 and is published in English by Gallic. It was a Waterstones Book Club book and ABA Indies Introduce pick in 2013. Antoine was chosen to represent France at European Literature Night 2014.
He is also the author of French Rhapsody, The Portrait, Smoking Kills and Vintage, 1954 is coming out in June 2019!