Paris, 1917 — an era of bold artistic exploration, a voguish intellectual scene, post-WWI excesses and a thriving queer culture. Into all of this enters Sylvia Beach, a 30-year-old American woman looking to finally make something of herself in the City of Light. When she stumbles into a bookstore in the Latin Quarter, she does not expect to fall in love with the shop owner, nor to be absorbed into her circle of influential French authors and intellectuals. And Sylvia certainly does not expect to become one of the most distinguished women of her time, battling the U.S. government’s censorship of literature and owning one of the most famous bookstores in the world. Kerri Maher’s “The Paris Bookseller” tells the fictionalized story of this remarkable woman through the most exciting — and tumultuous — years of her life.
The beginning of this book does no credit to the rest. It is better remembered in hindsight, when you understand the story and the tenuous first chapters attempt to set up the literary world. Sylvia’s character is rushed and half-formed; for example, she moves all the way from New Jersey to Paris, which she has longed to return to ever since she was a teenager, and yet within months, she has signed up to volunteer on a Serbian farm for a year. She’s supposedly leaving Paris to run away from her feelings for the bookstore owner, Adrienne, who has a long-term partner, yet it is never made clear why Sylvia is so suddenly in love. Adrienne is described by others as charming, but Adrienne herself is only given a few lines of dialogue to prove that she’s deserving of this adoration. She doesn’t — at least, not the sort of unrequited love that drives someone out of the country to a Serbian village.
Forty pages in, you still don’t have a sense of who Sylvia really is or why she makes the decisions she does. You do, however, get the sense that Adrienne’s lover must not have been all that important to her after all, given how little Adrienne mourns her when she dies and how quickly she develops feelings for Sylvia instead. Everything happens abruptly, the twists and turns lacking emotional depth and the romance feeling forced.
Once you get into the meat of the story, you understand that these chapters are just the prologue to the real narrative and only serve to tell you what you need in order to understand the rest. The strategy makes sense logistically — but it makes for a rocky start.
All that being said, the rest of the book is beautiful.
Some of the biggest names in English literature find their way into Sylvia’s life (Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the like). From public readings in Adrienne’s bookstore to wild nights in Parisian clubs, high society dinners to heated debates over artistic movements and law, we get to peer into the (fictionalized) lives of the Lost Generation writers who would go on to change the literary world. To see them portrayed not as heroic geniuses but as people — the rivalry between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Joyce’s health problems and alcoholism, Hemingway’s many failed romantic ventures — enriched my understanding of their work.
This is particularly the case with Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which poses the central conflict of the book. In the 1920s, America was undergoing a crisis of censorship (one of many in its history). The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by John Sumner, was granted legal powers of search, seizure and arrest by the New York state government. Sumner took particular issue with “Ulysses,” which was written in a controversial new style that focused on telling the whole truth of the character’s day-to-day life, every intimate detail and unfiltered moment — even when it came to so-called obscene topics like masturbation, which ultimately led to the novel being put on trial. This work was massively influential for contemporaneous and future writers, including other greats like Virginia Woolf, but it faced years of censorship and legal troubles. Sylvia saved it from censorship and the resulting obscurity through great personal sacrifice, yet she was never truly given credit for it by the broader public — in the story or in real life.
Women were (as they too often still are) disregarded as foolish or, worse, utterly unimportant. In the legal battles against censorship and plagiarism, Sylvia was written off as a secretary, despite playing the second most important role (after Joyce) in the conception of this book. She alone agreed to publish it against the law; she alone organized the herculean effort it took to parse through and type up his scribbles; she alone hounded his former lawyer for lost pages; she alone raised the money to pay for the printing. That’s not to mention the efforts from the three women arrested and brought to trial over its distribution (two editors that published it as a periodical in their journal and one bookstore owner who distributed it), or the woman who financially supported his work year after year or the woman — Joyce’s partner — who raised his children so that he could focus on writing. When we think of man’s great achievements, we often forget that they are women’s as well. Maher is determined to make us remember.
“The Paris Bookseller” is brimming with famous names, legal intrigue and dramatic fights between friends, family and strangers alike. Yet it is also fundamentally a very human story, one that digs deeply into how good people can be at such odds with one another, and how we love, use and neglect one another.
There is genuine character development, spanning years, that embodies perfectly the way life so often feels — that combination of grief, nostalgia and growth that defines change. Twenty years pass: friends move away, couples divorce and the city in which you live turns from new to familiar to new again as the world advances around you. The changes that occur in Sylvia’s life are sometimes big and grand, but sometimes they are so subtle that all of a sudden you find yourself asking: How did we get here? How is everything so different than it was?
Closing this book, I was filled with a sense of longing — a longing for a life as well-lived as Sylvia’s. Her life is not always hopeful; things do not always work out as planned, and there is far more pain than anyone would wish for (as is the case in most lives). But Maher has shone a light on a figure more pivotal than anyone gives her credit for, this woman who just wanted to own a little bookstore in Paris.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.