Pereine Press have carved out a niche as the providers of lesser known novellas translated from foreign languages into English. I couldn't suppress a smile when I saw that this month's title, included in the "Chance Encounter" series, was Reader For Hire by Raymond Jean, whose original French title was La Lectrice. In my first year abroad, arriving as a naive 21-year-old for my first real job in France, I announced to my older male colleague that I was being employed as a "lectrice", the name given to a native-speaker employed as a language assistant in a university. He smirked and chuckled "ah, une lectrice, like in the book?" Seeing my look of total incomprehension, he explained "she's a woman who is employed to read in people's houses but she is very sensual and sexual". That was as far as that conversation went but I always assumed the book was a work of erotica that sounded a bit smutty and low brow. (I have since discovered that it was made into a popular film, which is probably why he had this rather reductive view !)
I was therefore surprised to see that, for the first two thirds of the book, there is very little that could be described as sensual or erotic. The main protagonist, Marie-Constance, appears to be a bit of a desperate housewife - she's a bland, bored, married woman who decides to put a small ad in the local newspaper, offering her services as a reader. Despite the newspaper editor's surprise and apprehension, warning that she will attract "the wrong sort", she is soon called on to become a paid reader for a number of clients, including a paraplegic teenager, an elderly Hungarian countess and an 8-year-old girl. Reading is an inspiring and enriching experience for each of her clients in different ways and, given my earlier conversation about the book, I wasn't really surprised when one of her male clients wants to enjoy her carnal as well as her vocal charms.
I had a hard time really getting into the story because I found Marie-Constance to be a bit of a mystery. Her frequent visits to her elderly lecturer friend for guidance show that she is in need of a father figure and I felt that she was a bit lost, using her new job as a voyage of self discovery. When she starts receiving indecent proposals, she asks her husband for advice and his oh-so-French words of wisdom are to be careful but to do what she wants. I didn't really feel that her voyage of self discovery and emotional emancipation really reached a satisfying climax, although the closing scene smacks of an awakening of feminist strength and self awareness that she undoubtedly didn't have at the start of the book.
Once again, after finishing a Pereine title, I am unsure of what I really thought about the book and whether I liked it or not, but once again, it has made me really think about the characters and my interpretations. That is without a doubt the sign of a good book so Pereine have again chosen an interesting work of fiction that packs an awful lot into less than 200 pages. It would be a great choice for book clubs as I'm sure different readers would have differing viewpoints about it.
star rating : 4/5
RRP : £12