Monday, February 21, 2011

13, Rue Therese

by Elena Mauli Shapiro
Headline, $36.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

This is by turns the most infuriating and intriguing novel I’ve come across in a long time. Infuriating because US author Shapiro’s bid to play with the novel’s form results in a jerky fragmented read – it’s more of a scrapbook at times with photos, letters and other memorabilia dotted through the pages. Oh and it’s wilfully obtuse, endlessly teasing, a puzzle of a book that I’m not sure I ever entirely solved. But what kept me reading is that when Shapiro allows the story to flow and lets her characters breathe and truly live, it’s quite wonderful.

Apparently the author was inspired by a box of treasures that fell into her possession when she was living in Paris because the old woman who had owned it had died and no one was left to claim her belongings. Shapiro has woven a curious fictional story around the jumble of gloves, coins, letters and other artefacts she found there. It begins with a visiting American professor Trevor Stratton, newly arrived in Paris, finding a box tucked into the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. It’s been planted by his mysterious secretary Josianne although he doesn’t yet know it.

In the grip of a terrible fever, Trevor begins to explore the contents of the box, reading the old love letters and examining wartime photographs. He discovers it all belonged to a woman called Louise Brunet, who was caught in a stifling and conventional marriage, and longed both for a child and for a less restrained life. Once 13, rue Therese becomes mostly Louise’s story it is engagingly and gloriously sexy. On the outside she is a model of convention. But secretly she tells outrageous lies to the priest in the confessional, develops a flaming passion for her new neighbour Xavier Langlais and suffers tremendous sadness and shame. Told simply and elegantly, without any of the frustrating blog-like playing-about Shapiro indulges in elsewhere, her share of the story is what the whole book should have been.

So do persevere through the clutter of those unsettling earlier pages, crammed with footnotes and lists, where half the time you have no idea who is narrating, and it’s all so clever-clever. The story beneath all those layers is irresistible.


Nicky Pellegrino is a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction and her new novel The Villa Girls - Orion - is being published in April this year. She is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 20 February, 2011.
Pellegrino has just set up a website.

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