Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How did the Book Club Discussion Go for Léon and Louise?

Apparently this week is my time to visit Paris during World War II from various perspectives. Today I discuss our book club discussion of Alex Capus's novel, Léon and Louise (Haus Publishing).

I started hearing about Léon and Louise months before it was published. Our sales rep John Mesjak was a madman getting folks to read it. He's one of our more connected reps, with an active blog and a deft way with the Tweet so it's no surprise that a number of booksellers picked it up and read it, to huge success. I've heard the Book Stall in Winnetka has sold several hundred, for example. Congrats to them, and also to both Roberta Rubin and Stephanie Hochschild, who are making bold transitions in their life--the former is selling this storied bookstore to the latter.

Alex Capus is a Swiss novelist who was longlisted for the German Book Prize for this novel.I wasn't paying too much attention, and didn't realize until I started Léon and Louise that it was set in France, and had that French style that characterizes such popular titles as The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It starts out with Léon's funeral. He insisted that the ceremony be at Notre Dame. It's mostly full of relatives, but after everyone is settled, in walks a striking woman who kisses him on the forehead. It's Louise.

And so we jump back to their teen years when they meet. World War I is raging.  Léon's gotten a job as a telegraph operator. Louise is charged with telling families that their beloved relatives have passed away while fighting. A love slowly simmers. But then they accidentally find themselves separated by (and I hope I'm not giving anything away here) bicycling into battle. And I know I'm not giving away anything to say that they survive, but are separated.

I should note up front that everyone in the in-store lit group liked the book, and I was probably the devil's advocate of the whole thing. The story is told through Léon's grandson, and like another recent read of mine, it made for some tricky construction. Is this a first-person or omniscient narrator? While Capus did a better job of keeping track of what the grandson was able to know through family folklore and what he wasn't (Louise remains a bit of an enigma) than the other author, who sort of put the issue on the back burner, it made me question where I simply don't like this family history literary device.

Their relationship almost had a Same Time, Next Year quality. Is the moral here that love can survive, or that, as C. said, it's best to drift through life, not worrying about the consequences? Leon's wife Yvonne seems to represent this most graphically--she practically turns into different people as the narrative progresses (or so Léon says several times), and the final one, the content one, balloons up as she decides to focus solely on food.

It is during World War II that this laissez faire attitude comes to the fore. Leon works for the police, figuring out who was poisoned and how. But when the Nazis take over Paris, he is moved to a team that has to copy out files of Jews and communists. He rebels in a quiet way, but, and here is where I can't give anything away, it's pretty quiet. It's a far cry from Nancy Kricorian's story (chronicled in yesterday's blog) about Armenians in the French resistance. But Capus, like Kricorian, understands that not everybody can be a hero, and not being a hero doesn't always make you a villain. And Léon is heroic in his own way, just quietly.

As I mentioned, there's a feeling that the book plays out as a family legend, something that I've enjoyed in the past. But as I always say, every book has hoops you have to jump through to enjoy it, and some of these were either too narrow or too high for me to jump through. Just about everyone else in our group enjoyed it, and several of our attendees loved it. And perhaps I'm just a victim of too high expectations. Next time recommend a book to me by telling me it is just okay. But the problem with that is I probably won't read it.

There aren't too many reviews out there to link to (it's tough for a small press) but Malcolm Forbes in the Star Tribune says "This love-conquers-all tale could easily have been trite and saccharine, but instead Capus' fusion of gripping drama and believable characters renders Léon and Louise both powerful and poignant."

One thing I did notice is that the book did get published in a lot of different countries, and it's interesting that the covers varied quite a bit from country to country. A lot of Europeans were taken by the many bicycling scenes of the early part of the novel. Oddly enough, nobody was excited enough by Léon's desk job to make it the cover image of the story.  I kid, but it is true that every designer either used a man and a woman or just a woman--there are no guy only covers. There's at least one all-type jacket.

I would have to agree that a lot of the charm of Leon and Louise was in the telling. Leigh Newman in Oprah  (O) magazine said "Capus' light, playful touch makes everything feel as if touched by an invisible French-speaking Mary Poppins, whether he's poking fun at a busybody landlord eating calf liver with onion or spinning up a description of Louise's polka-dot blouse." It was their book of the week last November. Hey, Oprah, help out a small press and make this your next book club selection.

Our next selection is A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer Dubois, on April 1, 7 pm. I've had several folks recommend this book to me so it would be great for me to be crazy about the book. Here's hoping!
Our May selection is a bit different. We're meeting on May 6 at a special time of 6 pm to discuss Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, and then we'll all go to the event area to hear him speak at 7 pm.

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