Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13, rue Thérèse deals with the history of a woman, Louise, as it is seen through the eyes of a professor working in Paris. Louise’s belongings, now mere artifacts to be consumed by study, come to Trevor Stratton via his department secretary Josianne with whom he is apparently in love. This detail, however, is fairly easy to overlook until the very last few pages.
The way the story is told can at times seem confusing. There is no continuity of time, which could perhaps be a way to suggest that suffering of the kind Louise endures knows no temporal limitations. Readers are constantly brought back and forth through time, and by the end of the book the current year, the year in which Dr. Stratton is supposedly situated, has become all but totally ambiguous.
There is an underlying theme likening the fallout of a broken heart to the fallout of war, specifically World War 1. Louise lives in Paris during the uneasy years between the first world war and the second. Stratton is an American in Paris after World War 2. As he studies Louise’s life, he begins to understand that the war permeated every conceivable part of her life, and the broken heart from which she suffered and the decisions she made because of it were the direct result of having lived and loved during the war.
Shapiro’s vocabulary sometimes seems out of place, as if she had her hands on a word too big and too slippery for her story and wanted to use it before it got away. For example, she writes, “Louise genuflects before the alter and crosses herself with holy water.” Genuflect is a marvelous word, and most of us learned context clues in the first grade so the meaning isn’t totally obscure. But I can’t help wondering if it is perhaps a bit overwhelming here. Essentially the sentence is about that word, particularly for those of us who don’t use it frequently.
Louise’s life and the people who populate it make for a very intriguing depiction of life in 1928. Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to most of them, and she includes details that don’t necessarily pertain to the story. These details make the characters all the more fascinating because they explain so much about why they function in Louise’s life the way they do, why they make the decisions they make and why they say the things they say. They are more life-like when they are written this way, although attempting to sort out who’s doing what does become confusing sometimes.
The book’s concept is an interesting one and is presented in a dynamic way. The e-book comes complete with photo images of what readers are supposed to believe are Louise’s belongings, which makes for a more interactive reading experience. The last chapter introduces a new twist that isn’t exactly well explained, a ploy that might have weakened the ending a bit, but the story in general wraps itself up nicely, and the reader can turn the last page feeling fulfilled.
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