13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

Thursday, March 3, 2011


13, rue Therese
"The fellow in the corner of the room -- do you see him?"

He did not seem frightened; instead he looked almost conspiratorial, as if they had come upon some unexpected animal in the forest and he was deciding whether he wanted to spook the animal for fun, or merely stay still and watch it.

Louise looked and saw only an empty wooden chair, bathed by the dimming light of late afternoon.

13, rue Thérèse is being talked about as a puzzle novel - with plenty of pictures and puzzles, and a narrator who tries to piece them together. Not quite unlike a suspense thriller, but this one is set in a totally unique setting and the story is told in a very unusual way. American Professor, Trevor Stratton, has just arrived in Paris to teach, and finds in his new office a small box full of artifacts from the WW1 period. His secretary placed them there for him to feast his research-oriented mind on them, but he doesn't know that yet. As he picks up item after item, he tries to decode the relevance of each object in the life of the person to whom the items in the box originally belonged to - a feisty Frenchwoman named Louise Brunet. As he gets through the items, he constructs a vivid portrait of this woman, whom he has no way of knowing but through this box.

Reading this book is like solving a puzzle, like playing treasure hunt. This is a mystery, but not a mystery by any traditional definition of this genre. Instead, it almost feels like the reader is solving the puzzle. Looking through the memorabilia, placing them in context, learning more about the characters and figuring the questions. The picture of each object is provided in the book when we/the narrator first find it. There is a sense that the objects are found in no particular order - they all seem very disconnected and spread across in time, but we do know that the secretary is laying this puzzle for her targets, so there must be some connection.

The narrator and also we, the readers, have no way of really knowing this Frenchwoman, but Trevor's imagination and his highly curious mind paint a picture that feels real. Through him, we come to know who Louise is, what kind of life she led, what she aspired for, and what she did. We also meet her family, her relatives, lovers and dreams. The title of each chapter is in French, and the French lover in me had as much relish in figuring out the title as it did in solving the puzzle. The focus shifts back and forth between the present, where the professor is trying to piece the story together, and the past, where we go through a few defining months in Louise's life.

What I loved the most was Elena writes the war experiences so well that I felt as if I was reading a real gritty first-hand experience. The experiences of the characters who had to serve were felt rather than just read. There was something very realistic about those passages. Still, there were aspects of the book that troubled me. The last few pages of the book build up to a high frenzy, that there's also a lot of confusion. Sometimes I had to read twice to get through. The funny thing is that the confusion was deliberate. As time wore on, Trevor Stratton (and I) got so involved that reality and imagination began to interleave. There were times, when I wasn't sure what I was reading about or if I read it right. There was also a little too much of sex in it. At one point, I felt things were crossing my permissible limit. But that was before my confusion became imminent. After that, I think I "got" why that was all there, but still things just literally heated up.

I would recommend this book - for the thrills (although it's not a thriller by genre) and for the unique storytelling format. 

I borrowed this book from the library.

22 comments:

Bibliophilebythesea said...

Nice review Aths. I did get a copy of this one but did not think I'd like it???

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

Great review! There was a little part at the end of the book that confused me and I had to talk to someone else who had read it to figure things out, so I think I know what you're talking about.

Bookingmama said...

Fantastic review. You had many of the same thoughts that I did!

hcmurdoch said...

What an interesting way to put together a book. Great, now another book to add to the TBR list!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy... said...

That sounds like a very cool story outline. Great review!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Wow, this sounds really good! I had it on my radar earlier but it must have slipped off. The idea of it being a puzzle to solve sounds fascinating.

mike d said...

Hi Aths;
Nice review. I enjoy books of the WWI historical time period as I think of things that my parents contemporaries might have experienced.
Mike Draper
PS Please stop over at my blog, I'm just sponsoring my first book giveaway.
http://mikedraperinguilford.blogspot.com

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you do read it, Diane! The presentation is really unique and the writing beautiful!

Athira / Aths said...

The ending confused me too. I think this novel can be interpreted in so many ways. It's just like a book that can have any number of plotlines depending on how you see it.

Athira / Aths said...

I can't wait to read your review, Julie!

Caribousmom said...

I can't tell you how many times I've picked up this book at B&N and been tempted to buy it; then put it back on the shelf. I'm still on the fence!! LOL! Thanks for the honest review!

Athira / Aths said...

I know, right? Mt. TBR is just getting too much food! I really loved the way this story was told.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks, Juju!

Athira / Aths said...

I really enjoyed the presentation style of this book. It was certainly unique and captivating too! The pictures made it all the more realistic. Apparently, the items used in this book are all part of a real collection that the author found in an apartment. She really those objects well to tell an interesting fictional story.

Athira / Aths said...

I also love WW1/WW2 period! That time was such a different period from now!

Athira / Aths said...

I think I can understand what you mean. Being such a different format, even I was not sure if this book will work for me. But I'm glad I gave it a try.

christa @ mental foodie said...

Based on the cover and title, I had no interest in this book... that is, until I read your review :) I am intrigued with its format!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you choose to read it! :) It's pretty fast-paced and not really character-driven, but it's not so plot-driven either, I think you will enjoy it. It's a really unique way of telling a story.

Misha said...

I have been seeing nice reviews of 13, rue Thérèse everywhere. I really need to buy and read it soon. Thank you for the review!

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it too!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Completely looking forward to reading this one! Loved your review!

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks! Can't wait to hear what you think!