I decided to read this book because it made an appearance on the Maclean’s Bestsellers list. It could best be described as a feel-good book for book lovers.
Jean Perdu owns a bookstore on a floating barge he calls the Literary Apothecary. He has a unique ability: “From a single conversation, he was able to discern what each soul lacked. To a certain degree, he could read from a body’s posture, its movements and its gestures, what was burdening or oppressing it. And finally, he had what his father had called transperception. ‘You can see and hear through most people’s camouflage. And behind it you see all the things they worry and dream about, and the things they lack.’” Jean has made it his goal “to treat all the emotions for which no other remedy exists.” Unfortunately, he is unable to diagnose and cure himself. Jean was abandoned by Manon, the love of his life, 21 years earlier. Manon had sent him a letter after she left, but he refused to read it. Finally he is persuaded to open it. The letter’s message has him unmooring the barge and setting off on a trip from Paris to southern France, picking up some passengers along the way.
Of course, Jean’s trip is not just a physical one by water and road; his is a journey of the soul. He has to discover what his soul has been lacking. As his name clearly suggests, he is a lost man; he admits, “I miss myself. I no longer know who I am.” After Manon’s departure he put his life on hold; he describes himself as staying “in the background, a small figure in a painting, while life was played out in the foreground.” Now he has to learn to live (and love) again.
I had some difficulty with the characterization of Jean. It’s difficult to believe that he is 50 years old and that for 21 years he has lived as he has. In his apartment, he boarded up one room which he hasn’t entered in two decades, and “he owned next to no furniture apart from a bed, a chair and a clothes rail – no knick-knacks, no music, no picture or photo albums . . . The two rooms he still occupied were so empty that they echoed when he coughed.” Jean is an avid reader who tells a customer that “’Books keep stupidity at bay,’” but it takes him almost half his lifetime to say, “I’m scared I’ve done something terribly stupid”? He is so intuitive about others but he has no self-perception whatsoever? I found it difficult to identify with the protagonist and I had a similar problem with the other characters who are all very quirky.
The story reads like a quest myth; Jean goes through virtually all the stages of the hero quest myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Jean, the “peculiar” man who doesn’t quite fit into the ordinary world, sets out on an adventure, though like all heroes he is reluctant to accept the call: “It was as though for the last twenty-one years his life had been leading up to this precise moment when it became clear to him what he had to do, what he should have done from the start.” He sets out with trepidation, realizing only gradually that he has let fear rule his life. He enters a new world with breathtaking sights; Jean describes himself as feeling “overrun by hyperintensive perceptions he had never experienced in the city.” This world has dangers too; Jean and his passengers, for example, have to flee from a “frenzied mob of men.” Every hero needs allies and Jean’s passengers, especially Jordan and Cuneo, serve as his helpers. Jordan gives Jean a piece of paper at a crucial time; that slip of paper serves almost like a talisman which helps Jean through a crucial stage of his journey. Others pass on their wisdom; Cuneo, for example, teaches Jean his worldview. Eventually Jean must face his greatest fear; after considerable time, Jean decides, “Now he could go to Bonnieux and complete this stage.” Eventually the hero is successful: “Then, at last, Jean Perdu understood.” By growing in spirit and understanding, he has proven himself worthy of his new life which is outlined in the Epilogue. Success on a hero’s quest is often life-changing for others, and that is certainly true for all of Jean’s passengers.
I loved some of the comments about books and reading: “Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues. And some . . . well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful void” and “’what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry’” and “’Books keep stupidity at bay. And vain hopes. And vain men’” and “Reading – an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that made one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.” Of course, the most important statement is one made by Jean towards the end: “’Books can do many things, but not everything. We have to live the important things, not read them. I have to . . . experience my book.’”
This book is good medicine for a languid summer day. It offers the requisite romance, great wine and food, a boat ride, a car trip, hikes in the mountains, and time at the beach. The novel providessome food for thought, but it’s not a heavy meal – a summer picnic perhaps.