Title: 13, rue Thérèse
Author: Elena Mauli Shapiro
No. of Pages: 278
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 2 February 2011
“American academic Trevor Stratton discovers a box full of artifacts from World War I as he settles into his new office in Paris. The pictures, letters, and objects in the box relate to the life of Louise Brunet, a feisty, charming Frenchwoman who lived through both World Wars.
As Trevor examines and documents the relics the box offers up, he begins to imagine the story of Louise Brunet’s life: her love for a cousin who died in the war, her marriage to a man who works for her father, and her attraction to a neighbor in her building at 13 rue Thérèse. The more time he spends with the objects though, the truer his imaginings of Louise’s life become, and the more he notices another alluring Frenchwoman: Josianne, his clerk, who planted the box in his office in the first place, and with whom he finds he is falling in love.”
My Thoughts: This is going to be a review in which I damn a book with faint praise. For starters, the synopsis makes this seem like a much more simplistic story than it is. Then again, perhaps I read the book incorrectly. Yes, it is a story about Trevor Stratton going through this mysterious box of artifacts, flashbacks to Louise Brunet’s life, and his growing interesting in Josianne. However, what I got from the story was a muddled story that bordered on magical realism as the lines between imagination and reality blur. There is talk of a fever, which would indicate hallucinations. Then again, it could all be just a dream. The whole thing is very confusing.
Not helping the situation is the fact that the entire novel is present tense all while jumping from time period to time period and narrator to narrator. This makes it extremely difficult to follow who, what, where, and when as the story progresses. The nature of the story is quite choppy, told in vignettes that begin with the introduction of each artifact. Just as you get used to a narrator and his or her story, you jump to a different narrator in a different time and place. The lack of continuity makes this jumbled little story that much more obscure. Adding to the mess are the footnotes, which provide translations of French sentences and other key reveals in the story. They are less footnotes than asides and essentially require you to jump back and forth between them. The only problem is that these footnotes are not at the bottom of the page but at the end of the story. There is nothing worse than having to jump a few dozen pages or more just to find out what is happening.
What I do like is the clever incorporation of the artifacts. There are images of every one of them, and they all look authentic. It is easy to imagine Ms. Shapiro taking her own box of letters, pictures, and other objects and using them to shape the story as she was writing it, for she is careful to include not just a picture of each but also adds a bit of commentary through Trevor about each one. The pictures of these items around which the entire story revolves is actually more interesting than the story itself. This is because they show you a true humanizing image of life in France during and after the Great War.
13, rue Thérèse is a cute novel, which is really my polite way of saying that I did not hate it. Honestly, I continue to struggle to understand what was happening most of the time for me to truly enjoy it. What I am able to glean from the story is not enough to make me want to puzzle out the rest. I just do not care enough to take the time to do so. I do love the artifacts and could have spent the same amount of time as I did reading the book just looking at their images. However, a quick glance at Goodreads makes me think this is an example of the wrong book at the wrong time. I was coming off of a decent book high when I selected 13, rue Thérèse, and this quiet story could not compete with that. When all is said and done, I am glad I can take this off my TBR pile and that I finally got around to reading it. I do not hate it, but neither is it a novel I will recommend to others.