Book review: 13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

One small, utilitarian box – with a red and white chequered lid not unlike a tablecloth in a cosy teashop – was the inspiration for an extraordinary debut novel from French-born writer Elena Mauli Shapiro.

Thursday, 1st September 2011, 7:00 am

The box exists ... it belonged to a woman called Louise Brunet who lived above the author’s family apartment at 13, rue Thérèse near the Palais Royal in Paris.

In the early 1980s, the old lady, who had no remaining relatives, died alone and the landlord allowed the building’s other tenants to scavenge through her belongings.

Shapiro’s mother salvaged the box and found within it ‘the sepulchre of Louise Brunet’s heart’ ... old love letters from the First World War, mesh church gloves, dried flowers, a rosary, photographs.

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The real story behind those random objects is lost forever but, fulfilling a lifelong ambition, 13, rue Thérèse attempts to resurrect the spirit of an anonymous woman and the possibilities of just what her life may have held.

It’s an unusual and daring premise for a first novel and one which ultimately succeeds in teasing, entertaining and delighting in equal measures.

As he settles into his new office in Paris, American academic Trevor Stratton discovers a box full of the relics of someone’s life.

The box has been deliberately placed there by enigmatic university librarian Josianne Noireau who has her own connection to the dead woman and is only too aware of the magic it can weave.

Stratton discovers the pictures, letters and objects relate to the life of Louise Brunet, a Frenchwoman who lived through both World Wars, and he slowly begins to piece together the story of her life.

As he unearths the truth of her marriage to a man who works for her father and her attraction to a new neighbour in her building at 13, rue Thérèse, he becomes enamoured with the charming, feisty Louise of his imagination.

Irrepressibly irreverent, funny and sexy, Louise is bored with her dull husband and has a brief but very passionate affair with her neighbour Xavier, a former fighter pilot in the Great War, who now teaches in the city.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Stratton is embarking on his own romance with Josianne but echoes of Louise’s story are haunting him in the most disconcerting way...

Shapiro peppers her book with real photographs and letters from Louise Brunet’s box giving added poignancy to a plot which meanders in true French style between the past and the present, through varying modes of narration and strange dialogues between the living and the dead.

Full of striking and often overtly sexual imagery and violent emotion, 13, rue Thérèse turns out to be an elaborate, intriguing and dizzying journey of discovery.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)