Book Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

About the Book:

The captivating story of a trailblazing young woman who fought against incredible odds to bring one of the most important books of the twentieth century to the world. For readers of The Paris Library, The Age of Light and The Paris Wife.

PARIS, 1919.

Young, bookish Sylvia Beach knows there is no greater city in the world than Paris. But when she opens an English-language bookshop on the bohemian Left Bank, Sylvia can’t yet know she is making history.

Many leading writers of the day, from Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein, consider Shakespeare and Company a second home. Here some of the most profound literary friendships blossom – and none more so than between James Joyce and Sylvia herself.

When Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses is banned, Sylvia determines to publish it through Shakespeare and Company. But the success and notoriety of publishing the most infamous book of the century comes at deep personal cost as Sylvia risks ruin, reputation, and her heart in the name of the life-changing power of books.

Published by Hachette Australia – Headline Review

Released 25th January 2022

My Thoughts:

I love biographical historical fiction, particularly when it’s literature themed. The Paris Bookseller tells the story of the birth of Shakespeare and Company, a revolutionary bookstore that first opened its doors in the early 1920s in Paris, offering a literary haven for expats, writers, and French people seeking books written in English. What initially seemed an impossible dream rapidly became a wonderous reality for Sylvia Beach, an American writer abroad, who opens the store on the bohemian Left Bank of Paris, a place where artists convene and lifestyles that are banned in other countries can be experienced without fear of persecution or condemnation. When Sylvia decides to publish the banned manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce, the trajectory of her life is irreparably altered.

There is a lot of name dropping in this novel, which to some may feel ostentatious, but to me, is one of its greatest assets. In a place and time such as when the book was set, you get this feeling of community from the novel, all revolving around Shakespeare and Company. There were in fact a lot of American writers living in Paris throughout the 1920s, the lifestyle a complete contrast to that within America, which was intensely conservative and prohibitive. I loved the way they moved in and out of each other’s lives, some getting along, some not, but all at some point in time gravitating towards the English language bookshop on the Left Bank that was Shakespeare and Company, and its generous and inspiring owner, Sylvia Beach.

Ulysses was the only novel ever published by Shakespeare and Company and the reasons for this were both simple and complex. The relationship between James Joyce and Sylvia was intense and draining, rewarding and lifechanging, complex and familial. I was fascinated by all the ins and outs that went into publishing a novel, the complications exacerbated by the fact that it was banned, and that James Joyce seemed to have no boundaries, a man who would spend freely despite being broke and revise his novel, over and over, post typesetting, despite the expense that nearly caused the project to go under. While the novel does not demonise Joyce, one is able to read between the lines with ease and draw your own conclusions as to the type of man he was.

Sylvia was a remarkable and beautiful woman, so generous of spirit with a deep intelligence and an appreciation for literature that was all consuming. As well as being the story of Shakespeare and Company and the publishing of Ulysses, this novel is also about Sylvia’s own love story, her sexual awakening in Paris and her lifelong devotion to Adrienne Monnier. The author reminds us in the author note at the end of the novel that this is fiction and provides a bibliography of books that one can read if they are seeking the facts, but she does detail what was truth within her novel and informs us that much of it was drawn from Sylvia’s own memoir.

‘She’d taken a gamble, and it had been the right one. It had all been worth it. This moment, this book, this writer, this city.’

Facts versus fiction aside, I think the author has done a brilliant job at crafting a tribute to Sylvia, Shakespeare and Company, and Ulysses. I was transported back in time, immersed into history with vivid realisation. This is a captivating novel, and I loved every page of it. Highly recommended.

☕☕☕☕☕

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

  1. Bravo to Sylvia Beach! I haven’t been to Shakespeare and Co, but I have been to the oldest English language bookshop Librairie Galignani. I remember it well because we walked the wrong way down a very long street and had to retrace our tired steps all the back to the other end of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The current Shakespeare and Company was opened in honour of her. She closed it during the Nazi occupation of Paris and never reopened it after the war. The closing of it is a story in itself, the author gives a summary at the end, but basically, she refused to sell a Nazi a book and he said they’d come back and seize the shop so she and some of her friends immediately dismantled it, moved all the stock upstairs, took out the fixtures and painted over the front, removing all traces of it so when they actually did come back that evening, the shop no longer existed! She was fabulous.
      Did you only visit that bookshop on account of walking the wrong way? If so, perhaps you went the right way afterall!

      Like

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