Here's an irresistible premise for you: an author takes a box of mementos collected by a neighbor who died without heirs, and incorporates them into a novel imagining the life of their owner. But, wait! Let's have an American professor in Paris find this box and write letters summarizing his findings. But the box should be left deliberately by the secretary of the department, who urges the professor to share his findings. And! Let the professor suffer from fevers that call into question the veracity of his letters. Are you confused yet? I have gone back and forth between rating this book five stars and rating it two. I settled on three, no - four, no three. I liked it, and I would certainly recommend it to a friend, but it's not quite...it doesn't quite...well, let me explain.
Shapiro's first novel is inspired by an actual box of mementoes she inherited after an heirless neighbor dies. She has always been fascinated with the box of treasures. What we choose to keep reveals so much about us, but also leaves great mysteries that can never be known for certain. This box belonged to Louise Brunet, who fell in love with her cousin (who was killed in the Great War) and married her father's apprentice. She teaches piano to Garance, a prodigy, and yearns for passion in her life. Shapiro imagines Professor Trevor Stratton scrutinizing the mementoes and finding their histories, their meaning to Louise, becoming gradually more obsessive and confused whether he has uncovered a truth or has only imagined it.
Shapiro's language teeters on the line between poetic and overwrought, crossing into both territories. I spent several minutes trying to decide whether certain passages were brilliant or cliched, and for some, I honestly still can't tell. Like this one: "The first time, the pain was so terrible that she'd thought it could not possibly get any worse. The second time, the pain had eaten her whole, had incorporated her into its being. Her flesh was pain itself" (p. 111). Since there are mementoes in the box from both World Wars, we are brought into both through the flashback/imaginings of Stratton, with mixed success. The two pages made up almost entirely of a story told in footnotes fell flat to me. Footnotes pull me out of a narrative like nothing else. The second person intrusions also pull me out of the story: "Inside you find a bit of change, scattered on the cloth lining like so much stray cash. Why not drop the coins one by one along the way and see where we wind up?" (p. 205)
Then there's the ambitious framework, in which Trevor Stratton and Josianne (the secretary) are barely developed characters. While the premise is interesting, Louise's story is simply far more interesting than the contemporary one. The ending for Trevor is ambiguous, but I'm familiar enough with French film that it didn't bother me. The disparity between the involving tale of Louise's life and the flat passages about Trevor and Josianne was simply too great. I have to admire the ambition of this novel, and Shapiro's boldness in execution, and I loved the story she imagined for Louise, but too many clever touches interrupted the narrative flow for me. Still, an utterly fascinating (if sometimes frustrating) read.
FTC Source Disclosure: I purchased this book.