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Interview with Paola Calvetti

November 2, 2011 8 comments

Paola Calvetti, author of PO Box Love: A Novel in Letters accepted to do a interview via e-mail after we had selected her book for our book club. So we wrote down a list of questions after discussing the novel.

Thanks again, Paola, for taking the time to answer our questions!

How did you imagine Emma’s bookstore? Does her shop exist somewhere or is it your dream of a bookshop?

Paola Calvetti: Emma’s bookshop is the sort of bookstore I dream of discovering. I miss that sort of independent bookshop and there are so few of them. I dreamed it up because I felt the need to go there in my head, to dream and to discover books. Every time Emma goes to her shop and I describe it I felt at home there, nostalgic. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found it in real life…but I am still looking!

Why did you choose the renovating of the Pierpont Morgan Library as a central “character” of the book?

Paola Calvetti: I chose the Pierpont Morgan Library because it is an absolutely extraordinary place, in many ways. It is more than just a building. John Pierpoint Morgan, was a man who loved beauty and wanted to surround himself with it. I find it very symbolic that his Library was transformed by a modern day genius, Renzo Piano, such that it has now been transformed into a place of extraordinary vitality, where people go to exchange thoughts, ideas, perhaps even meet for the first time, or just enjoy a silent moment. You can have a coffee and meet Jane Austen together.

Why the epistolary form?

Paola Calvetti: Federico chooses to write letters and through those letters he reflects on his life, his marriage and his work. The Morgan Library and Emma’s bookstore are two places that serve as metaphors where the two lovers “use” to recount their lives, their passions, their thoughts, and project their future….Writing a letter by hand allows you the time which an email does not. It is “slow” communication as opposed to the two lines of an sms or an email which is the literary equivalent of Fast Food.

Did you intend to place this book on the path of great love stories?

Paola Calvetti: I see the novel as a on the path of great love: romantic love but also a love of books, of family, of time, friendship…all those values which are eternal and keep us alive.

 Before opening her bookstore, Emma spent time in Lapland to think about her life. In Paolo Giordano’s novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mattia accepts a position in Sweden to leave his personal problems behind. Is there an Italian myth of going North to find isolation and think?

Paola Calvetti: I was born on January 10th. I love snow and Northern countries in both Europe and North America. Montreal for example is one of my favorite cities, marvelous, truly.

Have you read all the books listed in the novel?

Paola Calvetti: Yes I have. A true bookseller reads all the books she recommends. And I would never dare write about anything I didn’t know.

How do you use Internet to promote your books?

Paola Calvetti: I use facebook, and in France the publisher organized a blogger meeting, where I met with a group of bloggers. For the US editions, there is a fabulous marketing plan in place which will begin in January in which the book itself will be the protagonist talking about how excited it is to be in the bookstores in the States.

How is the situation of independent bookstore in Italy ?

Paola Calvetti: The general trend is not in favour of the independents but I love them and they (thankfully) love Emma. Amazon just arrived in Italy, so the readers still depend on the bookstores, but unfortunately, over half of sales are in the chains or supermarkets.

Who’s you favourite author ?

Paola Calvetti: I have so many, please don’t ask me to choose one. It would be like asking you to pick your favorite child. Some of my favorites are : Cunningham, Cameron, Foer, Tolstoy, Austen, Woolf. And I am always looking for new authors.

PO Box Love: A Novel of Letters by Paola Calvetti

October 27, 2011 10 comments

Noi due come un romanzo by Paola Calvetti. 2009  

  • French title: L’amour est à la lettre A.
  • English title : P/O Box Love: A Novel of Letters (will be published on January 31st 2012)
  • German title: Und immer wider Liebe: Roman
  • Dutch title: Voor liefde zie de letter L

This is the second book we had chosen for our book club and we met last Sunday night to discuss the book.  In November, we are reading Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. If you want to join us, it’ll be a pleasure. As this one wasn’t translated into English, you can also read The Roots of Heaven or Promise at Dawn if you want to discover this brilliant French writer.

Back to Paola Calvetti. I wrote my review of before our meeting and I’ll tell you what the others think of her novel.

My review

Emma, a fifty year old executive has inherited of a shop in the city center of Milan. She’s divorced and lives with her teenage son Mattia. She decides to leave her old life and open a bookstore specialized in love stories. It’s named Rêves et Sortilèges in French (Dreams and Charms) One day she gets in touch with her high-school sweetheart Federico. He’s married, has a daughter and works as an architect for Renzo Piano in New York on a big project, restoring the Pierpont Morgan library in Manhattan. The old flame kindles and as Federico now works in New York, they start writing to each other, using a PO Box. I won’t tell more about the plot, it would give away too many things.

The novel alternates between Emma’s everyday life in Milan and the letters she receives from Federico. She’s the narrator and Federico’s voice is only heard through his letters. We follow her adventure with her bookstore and how she develops her business. I enjoyed her shelves: the broken hearts section, the mission impossible shelf, the love and crime shelf, the traitors’ shelf, the cosi fan tutte one…There’s a lot of book suggestions in the novel, I started to write them down but there were too many of them, I gave up. Guess what? There’s a web site Rêves et Sortilèges and if you visit it, you’ll discover Emma’s bookstore, the shelves and the corresponding books, a video of Emma and Federico writing, the décor of the book. Have a look at it, it’s funny.

I liked Emma a lot, especially because we have things in common. Like her, I love spying on people’s books in trains, in the metro, in parks, everywhere. I’m always curious to see what other people read. She doesn’t drink wine and has to face people who just can’t understand that someone doesn’t like wine. (Is that as hard in Italy as it is in France?) She loves reading in bed and I’d like her to give me a “Shhh I’m reading” mug too. She made me want to visit Milan.

I also enjoyed Federico’s letters. I so want to go back to New York to visit his quiet places where he writes his letters.  I thought his voice was convincing, but can you really ride a Vespa in New York? Federico isn’t a reader but the researches he makes for his project slowly build a bridge between him and Emma. She gets interested in architecture and he starts enquiring after books. I liked to read about “his” project. (“his” because Renzo Piano really renovated the Pierpont Morgan Library in 2006)

The novel has flaws though. I thought that the side characters lacked craziness. I would have liked a whacked salesperson when Alice is so banal. Some literary coincidences may sound fake but they are used in many classic love stories too. I think about Mr Rochester being already married or Elizabeth Bennett stumbling upon Mr Darcy while visiting Pemberley.

In my post about book covers, I wrote “it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature.” So what’s the verdict? It’s a good read in the same category as Daniel Glattauer or Katherine Pancol’ animal trilogy. It’s lovely but it’s not for everyone. I had two charming evenings reading it and I enjoyed the moments I spent with this book as I have a thing for books about books, for the story of a bookstore and for epistolary novels. It is a novel about literature, about all the pleasure and comfort a reader can find in a book. That spoke to me.

After the book club meeting: what the others thought.

We all enjoyed reading it, although I was the one who liked it most, maybe because opening a bookstore is something I’d do if it paid the bills.

J. enjoyed following the development of the bookstore more than the love story and was a little bored by the parts about architecture. C&J both thought Federico wasn’t convincing and that he was speaking a lot of himself, that his feelings weren’t obvious. However, his letters after 09/11 were sober and moving. J also thought that everything runs too smoothly for Emma, that there aren’t enough obstacles.

On Emma herself, we thought it was nice to read about mature love. There’s a great acceptance of getting old, of solitude in these pages. In the span of years described in the book, Emma accepts aging. Her son leaves home, opening a new page of her life. We would have wanted more information about her past and more psychological insight.

We all liked the tribute to literature, as Emma’s customers also come after a break-up or a personal problem. They find comfort in books. I had chosen that quote:

Pour se sauver, on lit. On s’en remet à un geste méticuleux, une stratégie de défense, évidente mais géniale. Pour se sauver, on lit. Un baume parfait. Parce que peut-être, pour tout le monde, lire c’est fixer un point pour ne pas lever les yeux sur la confusion du monde, les yeux cloués sur ces lignes pour échapper à tout, les mots qui l’un après l’autre poussent le bruit vers un sourd entonnoir par où il s’écoulera dans ces petites formes de verre qu’on appelle des livres. La plus raffinée et la plus lâche des retraites. La plus douce. Qui peut comprendre quelque chose à la douceur s’il n’a jamais penché sa vie, sa vie tout entière, sur la première ligne de la première page d’un livre? C’est la seule, la plus douce protection contre toutes les peurs. Un livre qui commence. We read to save ourselves. We rely on a meticulous movement, a defence strategy, obvious but awesome. We read to save ourselves. A perfect balm. Perhaps it’s because for everyone, reading is a way to stare at something and avoid looking up at the confusion of the world. Eyes locked up on these lines to escape from everything, one by one the words push the noise towards a deaf funnel in which it will trickle out in these little glass shapes we call books. The most refined and the most coward of all shelters. The sweetest. Who can understand anything to sweetness if they have never bent their life, their entire life over the first line of the first page of a book? It’s the only and the softest protection against all fears. The beginning of a book.

as it speaks to me, until C pointed out that it comes from Lands of Glass by Alessandro Barricco, as Paola Calvetti indicated in the acknowledgments. Anyway, it’s a beautiful quote. Literature as a balm, an oblivion pill or a place to find answers.

To Paola Calvetti.

If you read this, I have a request:

It would be just great if you asked your publishers to include the list of the novels referred to in your book. There’s such a list in Katherine Pancol’s book, Un homme à distance and it was most convenient for compulsive readers like me. I LOVE that the web site of Rêves et Sortilèges exists and shows the Emma’s bookshop.

Paola Calvetti, book club and covers

October 12, 2011 40 comments

I wanted to remind you that our book club Les copines d’abord is currently reading Paola Calvetti’s book Noi due come un romanzo. It will only be published in English in January 2012 but it is available in French (L’amour est à la lettre A) and in German (Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman). Join us if you’re interested. I’ll post the review on October 27.

After reading Litlove’s post NOT chick-lit about how books are marketed for women and sometimes make look good novels like Harlequins – Sorry Litlove for summarizing so harshly your thoughtful post – Paola Calvetti’s novel came to my mind. Before reviewing the novel, I thought her book was a perfect illustration of how books are marketed differently according to the country and according to the supposed gender of their readership. The novel is the story of Emma, 50, who lives in Milan and quits her former life to open a bookstore. She also starts a correspondence with her former high school sweetheart Federico. If you only read the pitch I’ve just written, it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature. (You’ll have to wait for the review to know where it stands between the two.)

Here is the original Italian cover. The title means “The two of us like a novel”. I think it’s good, not too cheesy and puts forward the most important thing in the book: the letters. The colors are mostly black and white, nothing supposedly feminine. Nothing screams “I’m a novel for women only”

 

 

The French title is L’amour est à la lettre A. (Love is at the A letter), not at all the translation of the original title, which always bothers me. However, it refers to the letters and the bookstore, which is good. The French cover of the hardcover edition looks like the Italian cover. The paperback version shows Emma, but not her face. Is it because she’s 50? A picture of a young woman would be lying. Does that mean that an elegant fifty-year-old woman isn’t good for sales? I have another problem with this cover, it forgets Federico, who does have a voice in the story.

The German title is Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman, something like “And love forever: a novel”. The two German covers are quite opposite. I absolutely loathe the one with the bouquet in pastel tones. It looks like a Victorian novel. I don’t understand where the country setting comes from, most of the book is in Milan or New York. When I see a cover like this, I expect the stupidest romance. The other cover is better, but the red and black colors look sexy and somehow recall the Twilight covers. Where is my urban fifty-year-old Emma? Where’s the bookstore? Where is reading?

 

The English cover could be good without that rose. At least, there are books and letters. There’s nothing with a rose in that book. But look at all this pink!! An overdose of pink: pink background, pink rose, pink books, pink ribbon. It tastes like a stupid romance too. Seeing this cover, do you imagine a divorced active bookseller in Milan? I see a stay-at-home woman in the country in the 19thC.

 

If I’m in a positive state of mind, I’ll think that it will mislead romance readers and help them discover something else. If I’m in a ranting mind, I’m sorry for Paola Calvetti… This summer, I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. This is the adult version of Princesses and pink toys. A book for women? Pink. Cheesy. Corny. Flowers. Homes. Country. Long skirts. These covers forster the idea of women as romantic, interested in “girly” books and also tells men that these books aren’t for them. Honestly, can you imagine a man in a train carriage with a book with that cheesy book-letter-rose cover? He’d want to put a brown bag on it.

I don’t fit the description of the female reader these publishers imagine. I bought Paola Calvetti’s book because of her publisher, 10:18. I know that most of the time, I enjoy their books. If it had been published by J’ai Lu, with a cover like that and such a title, it would have stayed in the bookstore.

 

 

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