Book Review: The Emperor of Paris (Giller Long Listed 2012)

The Emperor of Paris: Description from Goodreads: Like his father before him, Octavio runs the Notre-Dame bakery, and knows the secret recipe for the perfect Parisian baguette. But, also like his father, Octavio has never mastered the art of reading and his only knowledge of the world beyond the bakery door comes from his own imagination. Just a few streets away, Isabeau works out of sight in the basement of the Louvre, trying to forget her disfigured beauty by losing herself in the paintings she restores and the stories she reads. The two might never have met, but for a curious chain of coincidences involving a mysterious traveller, an impoverished painter, a jaded bookseller, and a book of fairytales, lost and found . . .

When I cracked open The Emperor of Paris and mentioned that I was doing so on Twitter, a flurry of tweets followed stating I should sit back and enjoy. Ms. Somerville told me to enjoy this splendid billet-doux. Indeed, The Emperor of Paris is a love letter, however, one is sorely mistaken if you anticipate it to be written only about a relationship between Octavio and Isabeau, as the description suggests.

Non, c’est billet-doux is written for Paris, for the English language, for stories, for art, love for books and reading and about the sights, life and love in and around the bakery in which Octavio follows in his father’s footsteps.

The story flits back and forth to an event in time that is never truly exposed and fills the subsequent pages with characters and stories delicately connected to Octavio and Isabeau. It is not until the final 20 pages that Octavio and Isabeau become more than passingly and quietly acquainted by paintings, books and glimpses in a museum.

Although the writing is truly exquisite, misted with moments of gorgeous poignancy, I found I was indifferent to its languid and exiguously told story. Perhaps it is owing to the fact that I picked this slender novel up at the wrong time for I was not in the mood to be entranced by its surreptitiousness and nuance.

You can honestly open this book to any page and be greeted by transcendant words and those final 2 pages (and the 20 leading up to their meeting) with Octavio and Isabeau are lovely beyond any words, but I would be dishonest in saying I felt anything more than just a cursory enjoyment for this novel. 3 stars for me.

And, my thanks go out to Lindsey at Random House Canada for sending this our way. As always, we are grateful and appreciative.

It was a game his grandfather taught him, much to the dismay of his father, when Henri was hardly tall enough to reach the books. No peeking, the old man had said. Feel the books. When you think you are ready, make a selection.