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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.

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