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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mystery of Henri Pick

David Foenkinos

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To purchase The Mystery of Henri Pick

Title: The Mystery of Henri Pick
Author: David Foenkinos
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 281 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Mystery of Henri Pick - US
The Mystery of Henri Pick - UK
The Mystery of Henri Pick - Canada
Le mystère Henri Pick - Canada
Le mystère Henri Pick - France
Das geheime Leben des Monsieur Pick - Deutschland
Il mistero Henri Pick - Italia
La biblioteca de los libros rechazados - España
  • French title: Le mystère Henri Pick
  • Translated by Sam Taylor
  • Le mystère Henri Pick was made into a film in 2019, directed by Rémi Bezançon

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Our Assessment:

B : airy fluff -- but works very well for much of the novel, before trying to be too cute in the end

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 24/4/2016 Marianne Payot
The Guardian A 22/5/2020 Laura Wilson
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 22/5/2017 Franziska Wolffheim

  From the Reviews:
  • "Malicieux, enlevé, divertissant... Difficile de faire la fine bouche, le nouveau roman de David Foenkinos est une réussite. (...) Foenkinos, brocardant une époque où la forme l'emporte sur le fond, de croquer à loisir les moeurs du petit monde des livres, tout en jouant des gammes sur la fragilité des couples et la vulnérabilité de l'amour." - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "Written in a deceptively simple style, and with a beguiling mixture of conundrum and satire -- Foenkinos clearly enjoys poking fun at the French literary establishment -- this book is light, funny and erudite: a delight." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "Das geheime Leben des Monsieur Pick ist zweifellos von vorn bis hinten konstruiert, die Charaktere sind schablonenhaft und die Dialoge mitunter hölzern. Aber eine kurzweilige Story über den Buchmarkt zu schreiben ist Foenkinos gelungen." - Franziska Wolffheim, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mystery of Henri Pick begins with the story of the Richard Brautigan-inspired "library of rejected books", the Brautigan Library, where authors can leave their rejected and never published manuscripts. In Foenkinos' novel a French librarian, Jean-Pierre Grouvec, establishes a similar library in Crozon, in Brittany, in 1992, and for about a decade, until his death, it enjoys some success. He even hires an assistant, Magali Croze, who eventually takes over the library and the collection of rejected manuscripts.
       It is while visiting her parents, who live locally, that editor Delphine Despero stumbles on the now itself largely forgotten collection. She works at renowned publisher Grasset and does well there; Foenkinos has her have been the: "one who discovered Laurent Binet's extraordinary first novel, HHhH". Another author she discovered was Frédéric Koskas, whose The Bathtub she also published -- but which was a flop. Nevertheless, she and Frédéric became a couple, and she takes him with him when she goes to spend her summer holidays with her parents.
       They're enchanted by the collection of failed books -- even more failed than Frédéric's which, after all, at least got published (and by a prestigious publisher at that) -- and then thrilled to stumble upon what Delphine is immediately ready to call: "a masterpiece". No, regrettably not: "Masturbation and Sushi, an erotic ode to raw fish". The novel that catches Delphine's editor-eye is The Last Hours of a Love Affair, recounting the final moments of a love affair and counterposing that with the "death throes" of Pushkin. Its unlikely author is a local, recently deceased: Henri Pick, who had run a local pizzeria for some forty years.
       Delphine is determined to publish the book, and signs it up for Grasset. There's quickly some buzz about the mysterious title -- as: "Delphine had realized that the best way to publicize the novel was to talk about it as little as possible, to let a feeling of mystery surround it". She convinces the sales reps to get on board, and The Last Hours of a Love Affair is launched as Grasset's lead spring title (released at the time, rather than during the fall rentrée littéraire, since that launch-period was: "too competitive and overcrowded"). Of course, it becomes a publishing sensation.
       Unsurprisingly, a big part of its success comes down the unusual circumstances surrounding it:

While readers did enjoy Pick's novel, it was above all the story behind it that moved them. It echoed the fantasy of being someone else, the unsuspected superhero, the ordinary-seeming man whose secret is that he possesses an imperceptible literary sensibility.
       Pick is indeed an unlikely author. His widow maintains that he didn't even read any books, much less spend time writing -- but allows that there were times when he was on his own in the pizzeria where he might have done so. Still -- as the title of the novel suggests, after all ... -- the mystery of Henri Pick and his manuscript remains a puzzling one.
       A once influential but now entirely washed-up literary critic, Jean-Michel Rouche, becomes obsessed with the story behind the novel, and is determined to get to the bottom of it. His investigations lead him to lose his otherwise rather understanding girlfriend, but he feels compelled to continue sniffing around. The clues he finds make up a fairly clear trail, first convincing him that Pick was not the novel's actual author -- and then leaving him quite certain of who really was behind the book.
       The mystery of Henri Pick, or rather of the authorship of Henri Pick's novel, is ultimately not made public. Rouche shares his explanation with Pick's widow and daughter, but agrees to keep it to himself; the others in the know (or rather, the ones who actually have all the answers) also have their reasons for keeping the truth to themselves -- though one of them is very close to dropping the bomb (but then accepts it would be too explosive). The reading-world remains none the wiser -- and happy with the story about the book and its discovery as is.
       The Mystery of Henri Pick is a fairly enjoyable take on publishing and the romanticized image of reading/writing, with some fun (and not too obscurely-deep) French industry insider joking. Foenkinos doesn't exactly skewer the French publishing industry -- to go with his ultra-lite style he wields the bluntest (though far from dullest) of pens --, but there's some decent sly joking going on here, and just enough clever creativity in the presentation, as with his sprinkling of footnotes. Literary failure is as much his topic as literary success, with Frédéric's frustrations with writing his next book a significant part of the story, as is Rouche's falling-out-of-favor with the literary establishment (and then his girlfriend) and his struggles to find some role.
       Love is central to much that happens -- especially failed love and opportunities missed, for whatever reason. It begins with Pick's novel itself -- though Foenkinos describes it only in the most general terms (including, horrifically, Pick's daughter, Joséphine, saying it: "reminded her of the Clint Eastwood film, The Bridges of Madison County" -- so it's probably better we don't know much more about the novel itself ...) -- and extends to many of the other characters figuring in the story, whose lives are touched and changed by the book and the fuss surrounding it, from librarian Magali and the temptations she suddenly faces to the husband who had dumped Joséphine suddenly reäppearing in her life to Rouche's experiences with various women along the way to his uncovering what he believes is the story behind the manuscript (and, indeed, that story itself). Foenkinos presents all this with his usual ultra-lite touch -- effective, for the most part, though there is at least one incongruously jarring moment of confrontation between Delphine and Frédéric as they argue about just how much should be revealed of the story behind the novel.
       For most of the novel, Foenkinos shows a deft hand: this is the airiest of fluff, but it's done very well, and enjoyable. His easy familiarity with the publishing industry and all its facets -- especially publicity -- allows for an often amusing look at the making of a bestseller, with some astute spins on the whole thing, including the various foreign reactions, including how:
In the United States, the novel would come out under the title The Unwanted Book: a surprising choice, since it referred more to the story of the book's publication than the text itself, but tangible proof that our era was edging towards a complete domination of form over substance.
       The novel shifts around between several circles of characters, including around the library in Crozon, around Delphine and her job (complete with her frustrated writer-boyfriend), and then around Rouche and his investigations. Most of these, and the various side stories, are quite well presented, and through the actual publication and initial success of Pick's novel The Mystery of Henri Pick is really quite good. It's lite entertainment, oh so lite, but Foenkinos shapes his fluff quite expertly, and with just the right amount of sly humor. But then Rouche starts sniffing around, and learns a lot more about some of those behind the whole situation, and the novel veers sharply towards the sappy. Here, the novel isn't quite so good any longer; sappy is hard to pull off and though reasonably skillful Foenkinos wobbles some here; suddenly the comparison to The Bridges of Madison County feels all too close to the mark .....
       Semi-admirably, then, Foenkinos doesn't quite leave it there, offering one more would-be clever twist. It's clever enough, but also too cute for its and the novel's good -- a neat resolution that feels all too neat. With a bit more foundation along the way Foenkinos might have been able to pull it off; as is, it just feels too artificial and forced -- most fatally, not in keeping with the clever tone and approach he'd managed for so much of the earlier parts of the novel.
       The Mystery of Henri Pick is fine enough light entertainment -- but, for a while, felt like it could have been something more, and then just falls short with its too neat endings.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 July 2020

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The Mystery of Henri Pick: Reviews: The Brautigan Library: The Mystery of Henri Pick - the movie: Other books by David Foenkinos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bestselling French author David Foenkinos was born in 1974.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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