I was drawn to this novel not just because it is about books but because of its initial premise. This revolves around the various people in the running and creating of The Good Novel bookstore in Paris, which has a secret committee of people who select the novels for the store and these are of course “great” novels, not necessarily the latest fad or hit novel. Of course for this book to feature on my blog there needs to some sort of criminality and there is. A few months into the running of the bookstore, it begins to receive a lot of criticism and even threats. Eventually this extends to three of the committee all having either very frightening or very nearly fatal experiences. Sinister walkers on a cliff side terrify one of the committee, another nearly ends up dying of pneumonia and cirrhosis after being led into a woods, punched in stomach and made to drink very strong alcohol, whilst another is caused to have a car crash. Although secrecy is the priority both Van and Francesca who created the venture realise something needs to be done before anything worse happens, so they go to see a police official called Gonzague Heffner and to him they unfold the story of how their store came about and what has been happening since. Is this a conspiracy? Or is just one person behind all these events? And will Heffner be able to find them the answers they need?
In itself this was a very good premise for a book, yet even this does not save the book from being the very opposite of a good novel. For starters the beginning of the novel tries to be enigmatic but just ends up being annoyingly confusing. This does improve as a more linear narrative style takes over, but on the other hand this linear narrative is slow and often includes uninteresting and obscure literary tangents. Within the middle section of the novel (which is very long) there is too much back story given about how the bookstore came about and the initial crimes we are told about are left unaddressed. At points I did enjoy finding out more about the committee members (who are all writers) and their writing habits, but sometimes this did feel unnecessary. Moreover, a separate mystery entirely is who the narrator is, who seems to have connections with some of the characters. In short it is a story with a great premise but is a story which is not told well. I equally found it very difficult despite being a book lover to get attached to the central protagonists. In the beginning this was because these characters came across as very exclusive and snobby and then once these traits diminished it felt too late into the story to start caring about them. I think I also felt rather cheated as the story lures you in with the initial crimes and shadowy guilty party, but then doesn’t address these events until the end of the novel by which point the book (which is too long at 416 pages) has lost all of its momentum and energy, with the ending feeling depressing and flat.
I think the only good thing about this novel was that it got me thinking about what makes a good novel. Although I didn’t condone the threats and criticism thrown at The Good Novel bookstore in the story, I didn’t necessarily agree with Van and Francesca’s ideas of what makes a good novel, which (certainly initially) came across as elitist and snobbish. I don’t have an issue with demarcating novels as good or bad, as this is something many readers do naturally, as well literary prize committees, libraries, bookshops etc. I just think I am concerned with the criteria used to make this decision, as I don’t think in this story Agatha Christie or other great crime writers would have made the cut, yet who wouldn’t say for example Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) is a good, nay great novel? Regardless of genre (as I do read non-crime fiction sometimes) I think for me a good/great novel needs to contain as many of the following criteria as possible:
- Characters who you can engage with and get attached to (or at the very least take an interest in).
- Is written with a narrative style which hooks you and is not belaboured or unnecessarily dense. It has to make you care about the journey you are being taken on. The narrative itself doesn’t need to be 100% linear but it shouldn’t leave the reader irritatingly confused.
- I acknowledge that I have a preference for narrative styles which are humorous or comic to varying degrees, though this isn’t necessarily an essential criterion for every reader, as some may prefer darker or grittier novels.
- The story emotionally impacts you, meaning it stays with you after you have read it and this usually evidence for me that I have been successfully hooked into a book and have had an invested interest in the characters.
- Quirky or clever premise (I apply this criterion more to my non-crime fiction reading), but with this criterion it is important that this premise is executed well, as a poorly executed quirky or clever premise is worse than no quirky or clever premise.
Over to you:
Have I missed anything off my list of what makes a good novel? Let me know below. But in conclusion to this review…
Q: What’s a good novel?
A: Not this one.