Historical Fiction: 13, rue Therese, by Elena Mauli Shapiro

13, rue ThérèseThe secret life of Louise

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Opening the covers of 13, rue Therese is an enchanting experience. Remember the books you loved so well as a child, filled with captivating illustrations? I’ve always wondered why most books for adults have none at all. Now along comes a historical novel, set in Paris, which contains page after page of pictures of small antique mementos: letters, photos, gloves, coins, and more. The memorabilia belonged to a real person, Louise Brunet. No one collected her personal belongings when Louise died, and for twenty years, neighbor Elena Shapiro has puzzled over them, imagining the life depicted therein. Her alter ego, the narrator of the story, is an American academic who is studying the artifacts.

The Louise created by Shapiro lives an ordinary life as wife to a jeweler. WWI is behind her, but WWII is yet to explode. Louise’s first love was a cousin who wrote long, romantic missives from the trenches, but who died shortly after returning home. She settled for a comfortable marriage to a nice man who loves her, but her regrets about his failure to give her children dominates her moods and diminishes her passion for him. But “naughty” impulses still pester her, and Louise finds ways of fulfilling them. At first, she makes up erotic tales, about nonexistent sexual encounters, to relate, in all places, in the confessional. When a new family moves into the apartment below hers, however, she sets out to seduce the husband. Which she does magnificently. There’s a lot of “food porn”, day dreaming, and explicit sexuality. There are also some harrowing passages about the nightmare of trench warfare.

This little plot (the book is a mere 288 pages in length, including illustrations) sounds simple, but the way it is related makes it frustratingly complicated, so much so that it is difficult to discern whether the thoughts belong to Louise, or to the narrator. Shifting randomly between two time periods, Louise’s in the 1920’s and the narrator’s in the present, increases the confusion, particularly during the second half of the novel. Essentially, it is two separate love stories. Otherwise, it is reminiscent of Chopin’s The Awakening, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, with original elements of its own.

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