4 out of 5: Although labeled “novellas” in the subtitle, these eight pieces are true short stories; each one contains only a few key characters and spans roughly twenty pages. In the broadest sense, these stories uncover the hidden sources of humanity’s best qualities: happiness, forgiveness, love, and generosity. Schmitt’s tormented characters stumble upon these redemptive qualities in the unlikeliest of places, often despite their own reprehensible behavior. In “Wanda Winnipeg,” a wealthy divorcée anonymously gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to her destitute first lover in an uncharacteristic showing of generosity and consideration. In “A Fine Rainy Day,” a “cynical and disenchanted” widow discovers her buried optimism. An ironical deathbed gift turns into a much-needed fortune in “The Forgery.” All eight stories in The Most Beautiful Book in the World are tightly constructed and concise without sacrificing a deep sympathy for humanity’s dark moments and a celebration of its redeeming acts.
Schmitt’s simple and artful prose captures his characters' most intimate and raw moments without melodrama. In this example from “Odette Toulemonde,” Balthazar, a wildly successful novelist, recognizes the falsity of his life:
[H]e owned an apartment in the center of Paris which left many people feeling envious, but did he really like it? There was nothing on the walls, windows, shelves, or sofas that he himself had chosen: a decorator had done it all. In the living room there was a grand piano that no one played, a laughable symbol of social rank; his study had been designed with magazine publication in mind, because Balthazar actually preferred to write in cafes. He realized he was living in a décor. Worse than that—a décor that wasn’t even of his own making.Schmitt relies too often on tidy endings—several stories involve conveniently-timed medical emergencies, for example—but such occasional contrivances cannot overshadow this collection’s masterful depiction of the messy but wonderful human condition.