The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, is a hard book to define or explain. A novella, yes. A contemporary novella, definitely. Not quite magical realism, but it feigns a left punch that way. Possibly existentialist fiction? According to the website Early Bird Books, an existentialist novel is:
. . .typically characterized by an individual who exists in a chaotic and seemingly meaningless environment, [and] forces the protagonist to confront his/herself and determine his/her purpose in the world.
Féret-Fleury’s isn’t a terrible complicated plot; it is that it doesn’t all go together or arc, like I expect a book to do. And I’ve found this characterization with other translated novellas, such as Mile End by Lise Tremblay, The Room by Jonas Karlsson, The Camera by Jean Philippe-Toussaint and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
In The Girl Who Reads on the Métro we find Juliette, who is not reading on the métro but people-watching, especially those with books. She’s also not a girl. She’s an independent woman living in Paris. Anyway. She gets off the métro for her job as a real-estate salesperson, one she’s not great at because people don’t seem interested in listening to her. They’re too distracted by phones. Perhaps busyness is a point the author tries to make?
As she’s walking home, Juliette sees a used book shop with a book crammed in the door to prop it open. A girl (yes, an actual girl) encourages her inside, where we find her father, Soliman. He owns the place. Thinking Juliette wants to apply to be a passeur, Soliman gives her books to hand out to exactly the right people. She must follow people around, learning their patterns and personalities from a distance, before she gives them each the perfect book.
Weirdly, Juliette occasionally reading on the métro isn’t a plot point, though readers know she is the eponymous “girl” because of the blue scarf she wears that matches the one on the cover. And she never follows anyone to give away a book. Instead, Soliman asks her to move into his house/book shop to watch his daughter for weeks, maybe months, while he goes to do a thing. What thing? We don’t know.
Juliette is one of those bookish dreamers who feel stories help her live a full life, even though she doesn’t physically move around a lot. Soliman is worse; before he left for whatever reason, he hadn’t departed his home/book shop in ages. We don’t learn why, except the vague implication that books make your brain travel, even when your body does not.
Overall, I didn’t dislike The Girl Who Reads on the Métro, but because I had no excitement about what would happen in the plot (again, no arc), I wasn’t eager to pick it up. Juliette rolls with whatever strange thing comes her way, but she doesn’t experience a noticeable growth, either. Getting back to the definition of existentialist fiction, Juliette’s world isn’t chaos but it is meaningless. She doesn’t really learn about her purpose in the world, but I can see how the author asks the reader questions about who we are and what we’re doing with our lives.
Perhaps you may enjoy The Girl Who Reads on the Métro simply due to the sentences, which are lovely. As Juliette repairs a van, she wonders what if . . .
. . . the story of the world as she knew it was one big rumor that some people had taken the trouble to set down in writing, and which would continue to evolve, again and again, to the end.
It’s quite a thinker, one of those existentialist quandaries that will happen when you do things like think about the human structures imposed on the world, or how outer space is so big we can’t even fathom it. You’re imagination will run wild and practically scare you.
An interesting novella that I found easy to put down and wished would push harder on interesting potential plot threads that were left alone.