This enchanting new novel is about Ivan and Francesca, two booklovers who meet serendipitously in a bookstore and begin a conversation about the state of contemporary (albeit French) literature. One thing leads to another, and the two soon become partners in a new store that vows only to sell great novels. Their shop, The Good Novel, opens to much fanfare and controversy in Paris. Their stock of only great (and overwhelmingly French) fiction is determined by a secret committee of eight respected writers, each of whom submits a list of the 600 best novels of all time, with room for the few great new novels that are published each season, to be recommended by Ivan and Francesca and adopted or rejected by the anonymous panel.
It's not long before detractors begin to raise questions about the ethics of this business: who gets to decide which literature is great and which is merely popular and shallow? Can a book with less literary ambitions not be great? Isn't it dangerous for a large segment of books to be suppressed based on the tastes of a few?
The book shop owners deliver eloquent rebuttals, but a hostile division arises nevertheless. On one side is the devoted clientele of A Good Novel, who appreciate that artful literature is being preserved and that they don't have to sort through the commercial riff-raff to find an edifying reading experience. On the other side are fellow booklovers who decry the elitism and subjugation of merely pleasurable books.
Francesca and Ivan fear a secret cabal has formed once personal attacks against them begin to appear in print, followed soon by actual attempts to harm the members of their secret panel, threatening the lives of their writers and the sanctity of their entire business model.
There are plenty of interesting ideas at work here — what makes great literature, for instance, or how new technology is being used to discredit opposing viewpoints — but Cossé playfully incorporates elements of mystery and romance into her story, illustrating that good novels aren't limited by genre but by their lack of ambition to challenge and provoke. But perhaps most lastingly, A Novel Bookstore is a call to preserve literature in these days of waning interest, when technology and navel-gazing have consumed popular interest.
Reading A Novel Bookstore gave us the opportunity to analyze our own criteria of how we determine which books are represented at Turnrow. It seems in the past year or so, facing economic slow down and better understanding our clientele, we've become more devoted to the books we love and have attempted to find a good middle ground for customers. It's not that we don't carry the big bestsellers like James Patterson, Dan Brown, Stephen King and John Grisham — we love to read some of these authors, and some are even good friends to the store — but we especially enjoy introducing readers to books they might not have picked up without our recommendation.
When it comes down to it, selling (and publishing) books is an extremely important exchange and preservation of ideas. You don't have to agree with them all, but only recognize their worth and creative arrangement.
Cossé says it better through Francesca, who is telling Ivan about her grandfather, a famous historian and closet novelist, who bequeathed to her his entire library when he died:
"My grandfather left me a great deal more — a passion for literature, and something additional, fundamental: the conviction that literature is important. He talked about it often. Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it's not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality. Everything is there. That is why I never used the word fiction. Every subtlety in life is material for a book. He insisted on the fact: Have you noticed, he'd say, that I'm talking about novels? Novels don't contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done? It's a question you have to ask yourself. Listen carefully: it is a way to learn to live. There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life."