13, Rue Thérèse, by Elena Mauli Shapiro, Headline, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
You take a quick shufti at this debut novel and you clock its cuteness right away: the title for a start – treize, rue Thérèse; yeah got it; then all those old photos, facsimile letters, the chequered covers of a mysterious box embedded in the text and your bricolage alert is ringing like billy-o.
So you have a browse and you see right away that Elena Mauli Shapiro is having a bit of a lark, scrambling time, setting us up for the Unreliable Narrator who is made to happen upon that box full of stuff – an opening to a bigger mystery.
The story swings back and forth between Paris now and Paris then (mainly the 1920s), and you think it’s going to be too clever for its own good. You tell yourself life is just too short for another postmodernist stunt, and you look for something less pleased with itself with which to pass the idle hours.
Which would be such a pity. For this is one of the most delectably artful pieces of literary malarkey to have come along in a good while; a flirty, dirty tease of a novel. What’s it about though? Trevor, a weedy, slightly feverish American academic in Paris for unspecified research, gets hold of The Box (courtesy of a wily, sexy assistant), its objects belonging to the long dead Louise, the book’s wayward heroine. But there actually is a 13 rue Thérèse – an unimposing street between the rue de Richelieu and the avenue de l’Opéra where Mauli Shapiro grew up and became the owner of a real-life Louise Brunet’s things when they remained uncollected after her death.
The book tracks Trevor’s hapless detective work but we don’t really care much about that. What we do care about is Louise, whose cravings are so ravenous they make Emma Bovary look like Jennifer Aniston. Forbidden to marry her true love, a cousin, who, after some heavy fondling, gets blown away on the western front, she is obliged instead to settle for one of the assistants in her father’s jewellery workshop, a dull dog who “shoots blanks”, leaving her childless and ripe for transgression. Along comes a handsome neighbour, a former flying ace, to whom she writes anonymous notes celebrating adultery. They arrange a rendezvous at Père Lachaise cemetery and ... no, my lips are sealed. Louise’s seldom are. Oh, and there’s a postmodernist puzzle at the end for those of you who like that sort of thing. But really, it’s a bit of anticlimax. Whereas ...
Mauli Shapiro writes not so much like an angel as an imp: hot, jabbing and naughty, with a tight grip on the senses, even, when it comes to scrambled eggs: “The fresh eggs are cool to the touch, and their smoothness has something about it like skin. It must be the pinkish beige of their curved shells ... Louise likes the crunch of the shell, the slight resistance of the film immediately beneath it when the egg is pried open, runny translucent flesh plopping and sizzling into the frying pan.” Hot diggity dog!
There’s a good deal of food porn in the book, much of which is more the latter than the former. In the Palais Royal, Louise tears apart a pain au chocolat, “shred by moist shred” and then sparrow-teases a bird: “she can feel the heat of its tiny toes on her fingers, the prick of its minuscule claws”. At which point of course, the lust interest shows up to give Louise “a tight little smile, slightly askew”.
This is either your thing or it isn’t but Mauli Shapiro won’t be winning the Bad Sex Writing Prize any time soon, for she is much too witty. “Afterwards, as he holds her, she wants to say ‘I love you’ but she cannot. It would be too ridiculous. Instead she says, ‘You drink a lot of coffee.’ ‘Maybe so; why do you say that?’ ‘Your semen, it tasted a bit like coffee.’” Now why couldn’t DH Lawrence write like that instead of all that deathly pubic gardening?
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor