For Americans who’ve traveled to Paris, the name Shakespeare and Company will ring a bell; it’s the famed English-language bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, a bookstore that’s intimately linked to Lost Generation writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In The Paris Bookseller, novelist Kerri Maher tells the story of how Shakespeare and Company came to be.
Soon after returning to Paris, where she lived with her family as a teen, American Sylvia meets Parisian Adrienne Monnier, who runs a bookshop on the Left Bank. Sylvia is drawn to the cultured, literary Adrienne, and as their connection deepens, Sylvia decides to take on the mantle of bookseller, too: She’ll open the first English-language bookstore in Paris. And thus Shakespeare and Company is born.
The Paris Bookseller follows Sylvia from her bookshop’s first days to the end of the 1930s, as war approaches. Sprinkled throughout are Sylvia’s and Adrienne’s regular encounters, mostly at Shakespeare and Company, but also at dinners, parties and café gatherings with those literary luminaries—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein and others.
Sylvia’s friendship with James Joyce is at the heart of the novel. James, lauded but struggling, can’t find a publisher for his latest work, Ulysses, as American and British publishers are too prudish to take on the modernist novel and its graphic passages. Out of friendship, Sylvia volunteers to publish Ulysses, a quest that turns epic as James misses deadlines, rewrites already typeset pages and demands much, sometimes too much, of Sylvia and other literary friends.
Amid Shakespeare and Company’s ups and downs—thriving in the 1920s, when American tourists begin to visit the shop in the hopes of glimpsing famous writers, and then struggling through the Depression—Sylvia and Adrienne create a loving partnership in a time when queer relationships were far less accepted, even in Paris. Background characters are occasionally placed a bit too far into the background, but this is Sylvia’s story, and Maher has stayed true to her. With its insider’s view of the literary expat world of 1920s Paris, The Paris Bookseller will appeal to fans of Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife.