Hello fantastic readers! Judging by the title of this article, you might already have a good idea what direction I’m jumping in. You might be thinking (the sarcasm leaking out of your brain, through your laptop, and into my mind) that taking two days to read one novel is eons of time. After all, I know some lightning fast readers that can gobble up Lord of the Rings in one week (whereas it took me three months to labor through them, minus the lore at the end). However, I am a reader that wades through congealed caramel to get to the last word; I have to reread sentences multiple times and pause frequently to google words I do not know. That being said, I was thrilled to finish the The Red Notebook, a short novel penned by Antoine Laurain (a native Parisian that is famous for his other book, The President’s Hat) in only two short days. I fell in love with this book online when I first discovered its cheery title on Book Riot. The article mentioned note-worthy novels that were translated from diverse languages (i.e. French, German, and Swedish) into the universal lingua franca of English. The Red Notebook topped the list, and seeing as I’m perpetually intrigued by French culture and the allure of Paris in general, I had to special order this dainty novel from Barnes and Noble.
The plot is as follows: Laurent, a swanky banker turned humble bookseller, lives in Paris and happens across an abandoned mauve handbag on the top of a garbage bin one early morning. He tries to turn in the bag at the local police station, but decides to keep it instead; he becomes increasingly fascinated by its female owner after rummaging through the never-ending contents. The woman in question, Laure, was mugged the night before and spent the next several weeks in a coma. Falling in love with a woman he’s never met, Laurent finds the address of his mystery woman and enters her comatose life as a mere shadow–he even ends up taking care of her cat while she’s in the hospital! Needless to say, this optimistic book has a happy ending, despite spells of darkness and the crushing self doubt of a single, forty year old man. I enjoyed this book immensely for several reasons, mostly because the plot was refreshing, original, and easy to follow along. I just finished laboring through The Red Badge of Courage (a novel I thoroughly disliked but read anyways for the sake of my academic team), so any book after that was bound to be a invigorating godsend. Even though the translated text was a faint reproduction of its original meaning in French, some of the passages were so insightful and unforgettable, even in English. For example, the passage about Laurent collecting Laure’s “strappy” dress because of a dry-cleaning ticket left in her iconic handbag created such a powerful image in my mind.
“Judging Laure’s approximate height, he held the dress well below the level of his shoulder. The glass door of the bookcase reflected back their image, like a daguerreotype of yesteryear in which the face and body of the woman had been effaced by time, leaving nothing but the image of the dress. The man had been preserved, a man and his phantom wife.” (pg. 68)
Besides the moving passages, I loved the translation errors that were sprinkled sporadically throughout the text. I use the term “error” loosely because they weren’t so much errors as literal translations that gave off a different vibe than the original French word embodied. For example, nobody who speaks fluent English would say “yesteryear” as in the quote above (at least not Americans). I find these linguistic oddities fascinating because they give a different perspective to the novel, one that is filtered through French eyes. I also enjoyed the many references to literature and art throughout the story—after all, Laure was a first rate gilder in Paris that worked in places around the world. Although I did not recognize many of the authors Antoine Laurain threw into his characters’ conversations and thoughts, I appreciate his dedication to literature and writing in general. Overall, I would highly recommend this translated novel to anyone looking for a light, entertaining read full of romance, mystery, culture, and Parisian lifestyles. I find the fact that it was first written in French and later translated into English so fascinating—it’s usually the other way around in today’s Westernized world. Imagine all the beautiful and gut-wrenching novels that I will never read because they were written in some obscure language like Icelandic or Igbo…anyways, get your hands on this French gem because it instantly elevated my deep blue mood of late. Find out more about the author here.
One of my favorites quotes of the whole novel:
“Ephemeral relationships like that just happen, programmed from the outset to die after a brief period—but you only realize that as they are about to end.” (pg. 71)