Clara Reads Proust

This sweet slice-of-life story (192 pages) was published in March of 2024 by Gallic Books. The book takes you to a small town in Burgundy, France. Melissa read Clara Reads Proust and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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Clara Reads Proust

Stéphane Carlier, Polly Mackintosh (translator)

This petite book, just 200 pages, is bursting with whimsy and sweetness without being saccharine. It’s as if Wes Anderson and Amelie went on the perfect date in a storybook town in France.

The story is set in Chalon-sur-Saône, a small city in Burgundy infused with golden light. A river makes its way along banks lined with lazy trees, and a square dotted with cafes is guarded by a Gothic cathedral and half-timbered houses.

In a hidden nook, tucked down a passage, is the Cindy Coiffure salon. It’s been there since 1982, and the nonstop soundtrack is Radio Nostalgie, a station devoted to hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s currently run by Madame Habib, née Jacqueline Delage. She smells of Shalimar, cigarettes, and hairspray, but she’s convinced she’s running a posh salon. The truth is, as the narrator says, it ‘only survives thanks to a customer base of loyal regulars, whose average age is seventy.’

This is where our heroine Clara spends her days, giving the same hairstyles to the same people and keeping up a running internal monologue about her quirky co-workers. She’s got a boyfriend who makes everyone else swoon, but three years into their relationship, when she sees his light brown eyes and crooked smile, she feels nothing.

Then one day, a stranger comes into the salon. He arrives in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, without an appointment. Clara can tell right away that he isn’t from nearby and decides, in a flight of fancy, that he must be an artist or an actor. They don’t speak as she shampoos and cuts his hair, but a pop song she likes is playing on the radio, and when their eyes meet in the mirror, they both smile.

After he leaves the salon, Clara discovers he’s left behind a book: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. That is the magical moment that Clara begins to fall in love with reading, life, and, soon, herself.

The prose sparkles, and Clara is an amiable blend of sass and insecurity that makes her easy to root for. Her adventures unfold in slice-of-life vignettes — sprinkled with quotes from Proust — and the ending is all you could hope for and not what you might expect.

It is only later, when she opens the drawer to get a scrunchie that she rediscovers the book she’d since forgotten about. She thinks about the man again, about his air of mystery, his graceful nervousness. He hasn’t come back to the salon. What if he left the book behind on purpose?… Clara opens it and flicks through it, spotting a page with the corner folded down towards the end of the first third. A sentence has been underlined in blue ballpoint pen. ‘You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist’s nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs.’ — Stéphane Carlier

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