Interior of Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore in Paris. Sign on the wall says BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE

Lest you think I’ve abandoned writing about books in favor of writing about travel, let’s talk books today. My next blog post will preview a book about America—promise! But today, let’s linger overseas. Let me first tell you about a famous English-language bookstore in Paris called Shakespeare and Company. It’s located across the street from Notre Dame, it has an exquisite selection of books (in English!), and it has a motto to live by (see the photo). And let me now tell you about a book I read about Paris, before traveling to Paris.

Book Club Fiction and Women’s Fiction

Paris by the Book, a recently published novel by Liam Callanan, was given to me as a gift by a family member, upon my sharing that I was planning a trip to said city. Although it’s not the type of book I usually read, I read it before my trip and thereby learned a few facts about the city, and picked up a few additional French words. Paris by the Book is what publishing professionals call “book club fiction” or “women’s fiction.” These labels don’t mean that the book can’t be read outside of book clubs or by men. They merely mean that the book is well suited to be read in women’s book clubs . . . which are a huge source of revenue for the publishing industry.

In such books, there is often a relatable female heroine. And such books often raise issues that pertain to modern women’s lives, without being too inflammatory: issues easily discussable over wine and cheese in someone’s stylish living room. Often, the reader doesn’t need a lot of background knowledge to understand the book, or too much grit to make it through the entire thing; in other words, such books are accessible to a wide audience.

Literary agents with whom I’ve had contact seem to wish that my books were in the “book club fiction” category and/or “women’s fiction” category. Such books sell like hotcakes. When one women reads one, all the women in her circle have to read it, too.

Paris by the Book is indeed an easy read. There is indeed a relatable female heroine. (She is an American woman with two daughters; they all end up traveling to and living in Paris.) And indeed, the book raises issues pertaining to modern women’s lives.

Yeah, I’m a Woman

In fact, the book seemed so relevant to my own life that, upon reaching a certain point, I had a strong reaction. Anger. I was so angry! At a character in the book, yes, but also at people in my real social circles. I had trouble sleeping one night, I was so angry. And upon finishing the book, I immediately gave it to a female friend to read, because I’m eager to discuss it with another woman.

Book club fiction? Women’s fiction? Spot on. And, as my Airbnb host in London said to me, upon my confession that I could not stop crying while watching the play Emilia, “If it provokes an emotional reaction, it must be doing something right.” (I describe the play and my reaction to it here.)

Art’s Purpose

And that’s what art is all about! If I’m reacting, a connection was made. True, other people might react completely differently, or not at all, to the same work. However, if the artwork is making a connection with at least a substantial proportion of its audience, it’s doing its job. It’s expressing something in a format that other humans can understand. It’s communication in the emotional sphere.

Paris by the Book is far from perfect. I agree with the critique of it in this excellent review. But a certain key aspect of the book caused me to react, and this prompted me to think. Why am I so upset about this? wondered I. And I learned something about myself, and others, as a result.

When was the last time you had a strong emotional reaction to a work of art—such as a novel, play, or visual piece? Did you learn something about yourself, or others, as a result?