Review: 13, rue Thérèse

13, rue Thérèse
Elena Mauli Shapiro
Reagan Arthur Books, February 2011
9780316083287

These gloves haunt you.

But let us not be bothered with that now. Let us not slip onto our own body these accoutrements of the dead. Such a gesture would be a bit strange, a bit unsettling. Such a gesture is unnecessary when the object is before us and we can look at it at our leisure.

The gloves are flexible, strong, starkly black. They look like something to be worn to the funeral of a beloved someone; as you might have observed, they look like a widow’s gloves. The truth is that they are merely church gloves, worn every Sunday to holy offices. The color is so because white gloves are better suited to a virgin (or at the very least, a young and unmarried woman who could still plausibly undergo such a pantomime of purity). Black is the color of the true woman, one burdened with keeping a house and bearing children—a wife.

Louise has yearned keenly for the fulfillment of motherhood. She has been trying so hard. As of the day where our story hovers (Tuesday, November 6, 1928), she has not succeeded in this strenuous endeavor, though Lord knows she has been the most efficient puller of husbandly seed she had been allowed to be.

13, rue Thérèse is a delightful and clever origami box of a story. I’m probably not the first to make that analogy, nor do I think I will be the last, but it is an apt comparison: it is the kind of story that folds fiction and history, reality and imagination back and forth upon themselves until the reader scarcely knows which end is up.

One January, a visiting American professor of literature discovers a box of mementos hidden in a drawer in his Paris office. The box and its contents, he learns, belonged to Louise Brunet, who lived for many years at 13, rue Thérèse. Because he is a conscientious scholar, Trevor Stratton carefully catalogues each item, describing them in detail with accompanying scans in letters to an unnamed colleague. These images are included as part of the text, as are both the original French and Trevor’s translations of letters and postcards Louise saved. Several of the letters and photographs are from Louise’s intended, Camille, who is serving on the front line.

As Trevor’s description of the box’s contents progresses, however, he is drawn more deeply into solving the mystery of Louise Brunet. His catalogue gives way to imagined scenes from Louise’s life, but as a fever overtakes him the line between his imagination and the “history” he concocts for Louise grows increasingly blurry. Then the line disappears altogether:

“Louise?”

At the sound of her name, her eyes pop open. There is someone in the room, someone with a male voice—an unfamiliar male voice. She struggles to cover her pale bare legs with a sheet and looks across the room to see me, sitting on the wooden chair her husband usually puts his discarded clothes on when he undresses at night. Her eyes grow wider as a violent flush overtakes her face.

“You!” she says. “You don’t exist!”

I answer as softly as possible, “I beg to differ.”

“How did you get here?”

“Same way I always do.” As I say this, I raise the small object I am holding in my hand, the same one she currently has on her nightstand…..

In his fevered state, Trevor has become so obsessed with Louise’s story – her story as he has pieced it together, fashioned like a quilt, from the box of mementos that are all she left behind – that he has somehow become part of it. Trevor’s story and Louise’s story, initially parallel, have intersected.

There is another point of intersection to this remarkable book, however: the box of mementos, and Louise Brunet, and  the apartment at 13, rue Thérèse, are all real. Elena Mauli Shapiro lived at that address in Paris as a girl, and her mother saved the box of mementos when Louise died, leaving no family to claim her belongings. The images interspersed throughout the text of 13, rue Thérèse are of the actual objects in Shapiro’s possession; for an added layer of intertextual – or is it intratextual? – interaction, many of them are accompanied by a code for smartphone scanning or a link to view the images in greater detail.

This book, Shapiro’s first, is a result of a longtime fascination – obsession, perhaps – she has nurtured for Louise Brunet. In that regard 13, rue Thérèse is a story not only about the box’s contents and the woman who kept them, but also a story about the power even the most ordinary objects can generate in a fertile imagination. It is also a story on the one hand about the challenges of “writing” a narrative from a seemingly unrelated assortment of objects (a challenge I can appreciate when I’m wearing my historian’s hat) and on the other about the porous boundary separating fact from fiction, fantasy and reality. I am only just beginning to appreciate all the different layers of reality and imagination and how Shapiro has choreographed their intersections in this book. I eagerly look forward to reading what she comes up with next.

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