13, rue Thérèse is a most singular novel: perhaps not in subject matter (the reconstruction of a life from mementos and letters), but in style, substance, and subtext. While it is deeply entrenched in the life of a woman who lived in France from the early to mid-1900s, it begins in the present day with Trevor Stratton, a scholar in 19th century French literature from a Californian university, now teaching classes in Paris.
In his new office Trevor finds an unassuming box full of love letters, postcards, photographs, and other items belonging to Louise Brunet, an ordinary woman lost to history. As Trevor uses these keepsakes to reconstruct Louise’s life, however, she becomes not only a mystery to be unraveled, but an increasingly sensual and passionate individual whose life lived against the backdrop of WWI grows more real and compelling with each new discovery.
As the novel progresses, we start to wonder how it is that Trevor can so easily deviate from known fact to reconstruct so vividly not only Louise’s actions and motivations, but also her imagination and the smoldering sexuality that lies near to her core. Before long we’re not sure if we’re listening to Trevor’s voice or seeing through Louise’s eyes as we slip back and forth between events of the early 1900s and the scholarly reports of today. Trevor’s historical efforts are so well established, and yet so eerily prescient of the past – how could he be assuming so much with so little?
To say much more would rob the reader of the truly enjoyable unfolding of the events of this delightful novel. However, I will reveal that the items found in the story’s tin box are actually real keepsakes of a life actually lived – while the story may be imaginary, Louise Brunet was not. This credibility is layered throughout Ms. Shapiro’s words, and gives 13, rue Thérèse a haunting sense of believability even in what we know to be pure fiction. It’s a wonderfully disorienting and yet solidly grounded read that is in turn sentimental, sobering and seductive. A great book for those steamy days of summer – or anytime you want to be transported to a different time and place without leaving where you mundanely are.