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By Irene Nemirovsky
Some books sell because Oprah Winfrey wants you to buy them. Others get help from a major prize, a controversy, a movie tie-in, a famous author or an especially clever marketing campaign.
And some, such as Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, sell because they're great books.
Born in 1903, Nemirovsky was a Ukrainian Jew who emigrated to Paris as a young woman. She was arrested in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France and soon died at Auschwitz, where her husband, Michael Epstein, was later killed.
The author of several previous works, Nemirovsky had been discreetly working on a five-part novel before her arrest. The first two sections, fictionalized accounts of the war, were discovered in the 1990s by her daughter, Denise Epstein, and published in France to great acclaim in 2004. The book was again praised highly when the English edition came out in the United States last spring.
Countless books receive raves and nothing more, especially works in translation. But Suite Francaise has become an old-fashioned success story, proof that for all the troubles of a slow market and busy public, word-of-mouth and critical acclaim can be all the attention a book requires.
"Every once in a while, our business gets great sales for great books, and that makes it worth coming in every day," says Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage, which has two stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"I knew it had a lot of the right elements behind it, but it succeeded beyond my wildest imagination," says Barnes & Noble, Inc. fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley. "It's a great word of mouth book. I think people have read it, recognized the genius of it and passed it on to others."
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Suite Francaise has sold 160,000 copies and isn't slowing down. Nearly a year after publication, it is averaging a remarkable 3,000 sales a week, keeping pace with such commercial hits as Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and Stephen King's Lisey's Story. A paperback edition, scheduled for the spring, will have a first printing of 200,000.
"When I first read it, I thought it just seemed like a very fine novel and we would do very well if it sold between 50,000 and 75,000 copies. That would have been something of a trick," says Sonny Mehta, president and publisher of Alfred A. Knopf.
"It has never stopped selling and I expect it to be one of our top five paperbacks of the year," Hensley says.
The story of the Nazi takeover of a French village, Suite Francaise has been compared to Anne Frank's diary as a classic Holocaust story, told in real time, by an author who would not live to see her work published.
Mehta had enough confidence in Suite Francaise to personally recommend it to booksellers before publication, and Knopf counted on the novel to serve as its own best advertisement.
"The book strikes a nerve. It's beautifully written and it comes from a very different point of view," Petrocelli says. "We're selling it not only one at a time, but to book clubs for 10 and 15 copies at a time. And that's just amazing for that to happen with a hardcover book."
In her time, Nemirovsky was something of a celebrity, at least in France, releasing nine books between 1929 and 1937 and seeing one novel, David Golder, made into a feature film. She married Michael Epstein in 1926 and they later had two children, Denise and Elisabeth, who died in 1996.
But Nemirovsky was never fully assimilated into her adopted country, by religion or nationality. She did not become a French citizen and could not escape the rise of anti-Semitism, even after she converted to Catholicism in 1939. One year later, the Nazis invaded France, Nemirovsky was forbidden to publish and was then arrested as "a stateless person of Jewish descent" and deported to Auschwitz.
"My God! What is this country doing to me?" Nemirovsky wrote in her journal in 1941. "Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life."
Suite Francaise may well begin a full renaissance for Nemirovsky's work. A short novel she had been working on near the end of her life, Fire in the Blood, will soon be coming out in France and will be released in the United States in the fall. Mehta says that an "omnibus" edition of fiction is scheduled for early 2008, with an introduction by Claire Messud, author of the best seller, The Emperor's Children.
"If the response to Suite Francaise is any indication, there's a great deal of curiosity about Nemirovsky, and the best way to deal with it is to produce another book," Mehta says. "So much of her work has been unavailable and we want to bring as much of it back into print as possible."