Tuesday, January 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Historical fiction?  ✔

Story about writers, booksellers, or booklovers?  ✔

Set in Paris? ✔

How could this not be my first must-read book of the year?

Released today, The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher is an extraordinary novel. In a nutshell, it’s the fictional biography of Sylvia Beach, the owner/manager of Shakespeare and Company, the first English-language bookstore in Paris.

What a life she led!

An American partly brought up in Paris, Sylvia returns to the city she loves to join the American expats congregating there in the 1910s. Her first stop is a shop in the Latin Quarter: A. Monnier, bookseller. There she meets Adrienne Monnier, the proprietor, a woman who is to become her inspiration, fiercest supporter, and love of her life.

Sylvia immerses herself in the artistic and literary culture of early twentieth century Paris. Adrienne’s store is a gathering place and Sylvia is rapidly accepted into the world of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Valery Larbaud, Jules Romains—great thinkers and writers of the time. Determined to create something of her own, Sylvia realizes that what Paris needs is an English-language bookstore to help the cross-fertilization of Continental minds and English-speaking ones. And so, she starts Shakespeare and Company. Soon the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald are added to the mix. She even meets and becomes friends with the brilliant, innovative writer she admires most of all: James Joyce.

This novel succeeds so well because it is not a name-dropping tale of historical greats, but a resurrection of that vibrant community. (I’m so envious of that lifestyle, those conversations, that food!) Sylvia’s gift is her ability to befriend these artists, support their work, and become a part of their lives. (Kerri Maher’s gift is the ability to bring this all into my living room, dissolve the walls, and make me feel I’m in Paris.)

In the free-living Parisian society, no one bats an eye at Sylvia’s relationship with Adrienne, a well-established essayist, reviewer, publisher, and hostess, already beloved by all. Yet Sylvia is still dissatisfied. She wants to accomplish something unique, something lasting. She finds her cause when Joyce’s latest work, Ulysses, is in danger of being banned in the U.S. for obscenity on the basis of a few serialized chapters in literary journals. No one will publish the book. Not in the U.S., England, or Ireland. Sylvia decides Shakespeare and Company will be his publisher.

Joyce is a genius. His work is important. No one in her circle disputes that. He can be charming and even occasionally thoughtful. But the man is a parasite. A needy, greedy, self-centered parasite. And Sylvia is a giver. 

The novel is beautifully balanced. As awful as Joyce is, he’s also single-mindedly driven for a purpose. And if we readers, like Adrienne, wish Sylvia would give him the shove, we can also appreciate why she doesn’t.

While the strife with Joyce and Ulysses are central and bound up with the success and struggles of Shakespeare and Company (and Sylvia often feels she and the bookstore are one entity), The Paris Bookseller is more than the story of the conflict between these two. It’s a sweeping story of a time and place, and of a heart-warming community.

My first read of 2022 and I’ve already found this year’s favorite.

Just please don’t say I should now try to tackle Ulysses.


  1. My first book of the year too. I found her fascinating, but didn’t love the book as much as you. I still recommended it to those who are interested. It did make me want to read Ulysses. I read the first three sections, and that was enough… Your review is much better than mine! Thanks.

  2. What a wonderful review. I'm sure I'd love it.

  3. I am putting this book on my Amazon wishlist. Ulysses was awful as I recall-had to read it in school.

  4. I also enjoyed it very much, but I found it had a touch too much name-dropping, and there was a blaring historical mistake early on in the book. Still... it got a good rating from me.

  5. I love the sound of this simply because of Shakespeare & Co.