“What I really need is a friend just like me, I’m sure I’d be my own best friend.” The Red Notebook
What a delightful little book, quirky and chic, just like Laure its female protagonist. With wonderful economy, Antoine Laurain recreates the Paris of your imagination.
That Paris, the one you dream of visiting with a lover or to come face to face with one, is a romantic, cobblestone conglomerate of villages somehow woven together into a city. It is a haven for people-watching, where beautiful women sit at pavement cafés, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Expensive perfume, lingerie and shoes are considered essential and macaroons epitomise that style is simply everywhere. This is the Paris that has somehow eluded me on actual visits to La Ville Lumière but which jumps off the pages of this stunning novella, as if it were being painted by an artist in Montmartre right before my eyes. The Paris of literature and romance, antiques and fine wine, cosy bistro food and dozens of café creme. It is engagingly modern but abundantly nostalgic all at the same time, and I personally read it with a sense of foreboding that the end was going to come all too soon.
To quote the author himself, “It’s the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it.” So simple a premise, so sophisticated an execution.
For me the hook was in how this man approached the bag after he discovered it on top of a rubbish bin. The discomfort was palpable when, in an effort to uncover the owner’s identity, he delves nervously into the entirely feminine realm of the handbag. I was laughing out loud as the bag, not huge on first observation, just kept offering up random items, from what seemed to Laurent to be an almost interminable amount of “nooks and crannies”. He compares sorting through the handbag as being like “dissecting an octopus on a kitchen table”. It was just so realistic, men are scared of rooting around in women’s handbags, never fully comfortable about what they might uncover within their depths.
Most interesting among the contents was the red moleskin notebook the mysterious owner used to describe what can only be termed random thoughts. Having stopped writing diaries in her teens, she now wrote lists – things she loved, things that scared her, things she dreamed about…. Just stuff really. Ideas, feelings – “random, touching, zany, sensual” thoughts. But these lists were so revealing that they didn’t just pique the curiousity of the man aiming to uncover her identity, they may have made him fall in love with her.
But who was the endearing enigma coming to life from the pages of that red notebook? He knew she was scared of red ants, had dreamt her cat was a man and she made love to him, that she liked to eat in the garden, loved the smell of basil and thought she would be her own best friend.
What he didn’t know was her name, or where she lived. Could a dry cleaning receipt, a signed copy of a book by a famous author and a key-ring possibly provide enough clues to solve the mystery? You will have to read it for yourself to find that out. And if you are anything like me, you will follow the unfolding mystery feeling charmed by the lyricism of the prose, the delightful randomness of the scribbles in the notebook and the wonderful evocation of Parisian life at its best.
If you are a bibliophile you will want to rummage through an independent bookstore piled high with rare treasures, if you are a foodie you will be searching for a Pot-au-Feu recipe that is generous with the garlic, if you are a budding writer you may well start jotting lists in a beautiful leather notebook and if you are a romantic you will fervently want to believe that a serendipitous encounter can lead to lasting love. This is a beautiful book, that kind of makes you believe in fairy tales xo