When I think about people who have changed the course of history – scientists, world leaders, and politicians come to mind – not Sylvia Beach, the American bibliophile who opened Shakespeare and Company, the first English language bookstore in Paris. Beach opened her bookstore and lending library in 1919 and it quickly became the second home to many famous expatriates: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and most importantly, James Joyce.
The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher is a novel about Beach’s famous bookstore and her impact on the book world as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been serialized in America and then banned. It was no small accomplishment – partly because Joyce was famously depressed, suffered from glaucoma and problematic relationships, and had to be cajoled into finishing it, but also because once published, she had to find a way to distribute it. Prohibition, book banning, and puritanical values pushed many artists to move abroad in the 1920’s, where they could enjoy the freedom to create and live as they wished. Beach was in good company. She spent countless dollars and hours publishing Ulysses, considered a masterpiece by many, famous for its stream-of-consciousness interior monologue.
The setting and the historical characters that populate The Paris Bookseller were a big draw for me. Add to that the story behind the publication of Ulysses by a woman-owned business and I’m a fan. There were moments at the beginning of the book where I felt that more editing would have been helpful – a little too much book title dropping to establish Beach’s credentials as a bibliophile and set the historical stage, felt forced, but once I got into the story of Beach’s incredible feat – a woman in the 1920s who took on a publishing world largely run by men – I was encouraged to read to the end.
Fans of Marie Benedict’s and Paula McLain’s historical fiction will enjoy Kerri Maher’s The Paris Bookseller.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of every month on Superior Reads on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.