When the manuscript of a debut crime novel arrives at a Parisian publishing house, everyone in the readers’ room is convinced it’s something special. And the committee for France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, agrees.
But when the shortlist is announced, there’s a problem for editor Violaine Lepage: she has no idea of the author’s identity. As the police begin to investigate a series of murders strangely reminiscent of those recounted in the book, Violaine is not the only one looking for answers. And, suffering memory blanks following an aeroplane accident, she’s beginning to wonder what role she might play in the story …
Every so often a book comes along that, for want of any better word, is utterly charming. Not necessarily the most memorable or original or well written or thrilling but, quite simply, a captivating and delightful slice of readerly delight. The Reader’s Room, the latest novel from Parisian author Antoine Laurain, is one such book.
Set around the reader’s room of a Parisian publishing house, The Reader’s Room is part whodunnit, part character study, and part irreverent send-up of the publishing industry. When renowned editor Violaine Lepage opts to publish Camille Désencres Sugar Flowers, she is only mildly concerned its elusive author cannot attend the office to sign the contract and is contactable only be email. When the novel gets nominated for the Prix Goncourt however, finding its author becomes a priority. And when a police detective investigating three murders that bear a striking similarity to those described in the book arrives in Violaine’s office, learning Camille’s true identity becomes an imperative.
Unfortunately for Violaine, she herself is struggling to understand who she is. Following a freak accident, she is left with huge gaps in her memory. Why does her office smell of smoke when she cannot stand cigarettes? How did several dresses end up in her closet when she does not remember buying them? Exactly who is Violaine Lepage? And how is she involved with Camille Désencres?
Given that The Reader’s Room can be read over the course of an afternoon (it comes in at a relatively slender 182 pages), it packs in plenty of story. In addition to the question of whether the author of Sugar Flowers might be a cold-blooded killer, there are the various mysteries of Violaine’s own life, the police investigation into the killings, and an insight into the inner workings of the reader’s room and the awarding of the Prix Goncourt. All elements that should not blend together in any reasonable way but that, in the hands of Antoine Laurain, somehow do.
Although there were moments when I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in order to stay with the plot, The Reader’s Room made for such an enjoyable slice of Parisian delight that I didn’t really mind the more outlandish moments or the character’s somewhat eccentric natures. The book had the quality of a modern-day fairy-tale – think to hard about it and the magic goes away so best just to sit back and enjoy the story – and, for that reason, I very much suspect that it will not appeal to everybody. There will almost certainly be some readers who feel that the book veers too much into whimsy whereas others (like myself) will point to the languidly beautiful writing and the wryly observed vignettes and proclaim them to be enchanting and charming.
Because whilst I’m not sure the extent to which The Reader’s Room will stay with me, I very much enjoyed the time I spent with the book. I whiled away a delightful afternoon with Laurain’s simple yet elegant prose (which has been rendered beautifully by translators Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin, and Polly Mackintosh) and was captivated by the gradual unravelling of the connections between Violaine, Sugar Flowers, and the ongoing murder investigation. And whilst there were some moments that required me to firmly set logic and probability to one side, the easy charm and wry comedy of the book allowed me to easily forgive its more unlikely plot twists.
Fans of Laurain’s previous work will, I’m sure, adore The Reader’s Room – it very much seems to have the hallmarks of his style. As someone new to his work, The Reader’s Room provided an enjoyable introduction – and a very pleasant afternoon’s reading – so I shall certainly look out for some of his other books in the future.
The Reader’s Room by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin and Polly Mackintosh, is published in paperback by Gallic Books on 17 June 2021 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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