The Readers’ Room
by Antoine Laurain
Le Service des manuscrits
was first published in Jan 2020.
Translated from the French by
Jane Aitken/Emily Boyce/Polly Mackintosh
US release date 9/22/2020
With his previous novels, especially The President’s Hat (2013) and Vintage 1954 (2019), Antoine Laurain has created an expectation of great plots and fascinating characters for his fans. They will not be disappointed with The Readers’ Room, with an additional plus of a book on books!
Indeed, beyond the intriguing plot, I see The Readers’ Room as a wonderful homage to books and to literature in general. The opening page is most revealing in this regard:
It was really neat to meet together Marcel Proust and Georges Perec (and Michel Houellebecq? Well, maybe less, lol). In several other passages of the book, we have similar scenes or lists.
The context may not be as fun: Violaine, an editor and director of the “readers’ room” (service des manuscrits in French – original French title of the novel), has just had a terrible plane accident and has been in the coma for eighteen days.
When she comes to, physically challenged and with serious memory issues, she does remember that her publishing house has received an excellent crime novel.
There’s a major problem though: this book is worthy of the Prix Goncourt (a very prestigious French literary award), but the author Camille (à la Elena Ferrante), didn’t reveal his or her identity. The first name can be both for a woman or a man in French. How is Violaine going to deal with this situation?
The problem gets worse when a police detective shows up and suspects the whole readers’ room, as this mysterious novel seems to be describing too well murders she has been investigating.
Who is this author? Why not reveal who he or she is? Is the readers’ room indeed involved?
I will stop here for the plot (I think the official synopsis gives too many details, as is often the case). Suffice it to say that it is very well built and grows with twists and turns, with a cool way of finally revealing the truth.
The characters are quite colorful, each member of the readers’ room for instance, from the youngest reader Marie to the oldest blind member Béatrice. Everyone has a unique and rich life, with often quirky elements.
Laurain spices it up with great images, like
All those phantom books form a sort of enveloping cloud around literature like the ozone layer around the earth.
Ideas that came to them suddenly in the shower or in the middle of a business lunch like an attacking wasp.
Murielle had previously been a proofreader and the hunt for spelling mistakes and typographical errors had brought her as much joy as gathering mushrooms in September.
Some situations are also hilarious, like the way the fear of flying in a plane is described.
I obviously loved all the references to authors, all the passages on the Goncourt (incidentally, the long list for this year’s award has just been published), and to the work behind the scenes in publishing house.
I also enjoyed how the book is presented, as a collection of very short chapters.
If you love books about books, you are going to love The Readers’ Room, with its multifaceted homage to how books can intersect with our lives and enrich them.
VERDICT: Multifaceted homage to how books can intersect with our lives and enrich them.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
What’s the last great book about books you read?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge for review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.