The Girl from the Chartreuse

I was poking around at an 80% off sale at one of my favorite book stores when I came across a book that caught my eye: The Girl from the Chartreuse by Pierre Peju. I’d never heard of it before, but I thought it would look pretty on my bookshelf (yes, I judge a book by its cover!)  so I decided to add it to my purchases.

The Girl from the Chartreuse (Fr. “La Petite Chartreuse,” translated into English by Ina Rilke) is a French novella that won the prestigious Prix du Livre Inter in 2003, and was made into a French film in 2005.

It starts off ominously: “Five in the afternoon. It will be exactly five in the afternoon under the bitter cold November rain when the van of the bookseller Vollard (Etienne) spurting down the avenue collides head-on with a little girl who runs smack into his path.”

The accident brings three people together: Vollard, the little girl Eva, and her mother, Therese.

Etienne Vollard is a hulking, solitary man who who is a bookshop owner, an avid reader and book collector. Eva is a lonely little girl in a new neighborhood, and Therese is a troubled single mother still struggling with the concept of parenthood and dreaming of an escape from her life, often forgetting about her daughter.

After the accident leaves Eva in a coma, Vollard is racked by guilt, so he visits her regularly in the hospital, reading bits of stories and poetry to her. His words gradually coax Eva into wakefulness, and their lives are altered forever.

It’s a pretty fast read, under two hundred pages divided into three parts, told in the omniscient save for Part II, shifts into an anonymous third person  (which was weird and unnecessary, I think) to tell us about how Vollard came to be the way he is.

The novella is poignant and moving, not so much because of what happens in the story but because of the insightful writing.

Even right from the first page, Peju manages to turn the accident into a beautiful tragedy:

“Frail limbs, pale, tender flesh beneath red anorak and tights, the little girl lunges forward. Eyes misting with tears, the panic of a lost child, and, in that final split second, the look of terror under the brown fringe. Sprung from nowhere, the small body is pitched in the air on impact. It rolls over the bonnet, forehead slammed against the windscreen, and Vollard thinks he can hear the sound of bone cracking in the screech of his breakes. In the roar and growl of rush-hour traffic is this child, struck down in mid-flight, scooped up, rolled over, then flung way back, the satchel plucked away, one shoe gone.

On the soaking asphalt a dark-read puddle slowly spreads around a body like a broken doll and rivulets of blood go snaking between the tyres of cars screaming to a halt in the November rain.”

There is also a wonderful description of Vollard’s bookshop that I just need to share here, because I’ve been fantasizing about it and I know a lot of you will be able to relate:

” ‘The Verb To Be’ was the name of an old bookshop. A murky place, due not to a lack of lighting but to all the nooks and crannies. A deep space with dark, worn floorboards and secluded niches. Books everywhere, spread on tables and upright in rows, thousands of silent observers on wooden shelves.

An ongoing battle between dust and the printed word at ‘The Verb To Be,’ cardboard boxes overflowing with books, piles of volumes threatening to topple. Anarchy reigning supreme. Grandiose anarchy. A profusion of genres and titles. A joyous alchemy. It was here that people could drop by any day to procure their reading matter, highbrow or popular, arcane or classic, in exchange for a modest sum.

The kind of retreat that future generations will be hard put to imagine because nothing like it will exist anymore, because this blend of order and clutter, of reverence for books and stacking them in promiscuous heaps, will have gone in smoke…

Over the display counters hung several shaded lamps diffusing a soft glow, in which thirsty readers could stoop for a private sip of the refreshments on offer. Champagne, infernal elixirs, heady wines, liqueurs, plain red and pure water. The dimness at the far end of the bookshop always took some getting used to, but on some mornings, the sun poured in so generously through the glazed door that it was impossible to resist going over there and opening a book in broad daylight, letting it warm the pages and show up the greain of the paper so that the whiteness would stretch out like a desert of signs. Leisure, light, literature: true happiness!”

It’s a brief but meaty work, sensitive and philosophical, and the memory stays with you long after you’ve closed the cover.


The Girl from the Chartreuse, hardcover with dustjacket, 4/5 stars

#33 for 2010

P for the A-Z challenge

*cover image courtesy of






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