Book Review for “The Lost Girls of Paris” by Pam Jenoff.
In the last years of WWII, the UK set into motion a plan to send people into Nazi occupied France where they would work as couriers in situ for the resistance and allied forces, or send vital information, by special coded radio transmissions, back to London in order to aid in the war effort. Some of the people sent to do this job were women, led by Eleanor Trigg. One of the girls Eleanor recruits and sends to France is Marie Roux, a single mother whose French makes her an important asset. Despite all their efforts, a dozen of these girls, including Marie, end up captured. After the war, in Manhattan, Grace Healey is working with refugees looking to start a new life in America. Grace is herself trying to start her life as well, since her fiancé’s death. When she finds Eleanor’s abandoned suitcase in Grand Central Station, and ends up finding pictures of these 12 women inside, the hunt for who they are and what happened to them, begins.
Let me start out by saying that I really like Jenoff’s writing. It is clear, straightforward, and with just enough poetic turns of phrase to help readers picture both the characters and the locations of the action, quite easily. Jenoff also colors the language of her prose to properly set the atmosphere, where we can feel darkness in the passages of the more difficult scenes of war-torn France. While Jenoff doesn’t portray post-war New York with much lightness to contrast that, she does allow some brighter descriptions to sneak in, but only where it fits with the story. I also have to say that Jenoff carves out three very different women in this book, with each one feeling very unique, with their own special voices. Furthermore, Jenoff paces this book just perfectly, building the tension and mystery, all leading up to an exciting, and fulfilling ending (in fact, one of the better I’ve read in a while), so kudos for that.
Of the three women, I have to say that the one I liked the best was Eleanor, and in fact, I feel that Jenoff could have made this her story from beginning to end, with no problem. Eleanor is a woman who is essentially, on her own. She’s independent, if somewhat ignored by her colleagues. But when the Special Operations Executive (SOE) decides to implement her idea to send women into occupied Europe to do this dangerous job, she devotes herself not only to the project, but to the women she finds, on a personal level, even while she retains her professional distance from them all. That actually makes Eleanor a touch of an enigma, so when things seem at odds with her behavior, we aren’t overtly surprised.
As for the other main characters, although I liked Grace in general, I’m not really sure why Jenoff decided to include her side of the story here. Yes, she’s a vehicle for discovering what really happened with Eleanor and these missing women, but it seems to me that just having Eleanor and Marie’s stories unfold would have done much the same. The only reason I can think of for Jenoff to include her side of the story was to help divert us from the real truth that only Marie and Eleanor truly know, and allow for a twist ending to the novel. As for Marie, I think Jenoff didn’t succeed in portraying her as I think she wanted to appear. Marie comes off as being almost gullible and innocent, and not nearly as skeptical and suspicious as she should be, considering how she should have been trained to carry out such covert operations. When she’s sent to France, we can practically see disaster in her future, long before anything goes wrong. Finally, the other character here who plays an important role in the network of these women is a man known as “Vesper,” who was likeable enough, but didn’t get enough “air time” to become really sympathetic.
My biggest problem with this book is that I think Jenoff bit off more than she could chew (which she referred to in the author’s notes), beginning with the whole inclusion of Grace in this novel. I found it odd that she’d get so involved in something that seemed like an unsolvable mystery, and her emotional attachment to the story wasn’t credible. There were also some things that happen with Grace that seemed overly convenient, and often inauthentic, such as her whole hook-up with this man Mark, who was an old friend of her departed fiancé, who ends up with connections within the Pentagon (don’t ask). There’s also the Vesper arc, and when he ends up being Marie’s first contact in situ, I’m afraid the romantic attraction was both totally obvious, and frankly unbelievable. This really needed much more development to work properly, and I wonder if Jenoff didn’t sacrifice that in order to include more surrounding Grace. Finally, while Eleanor’s story is the most solidly written of the three, even there I found some times when I had to say “huh?” at something she did or said.
What I’m saying here is that Jenoff had an excellent concept here, a truly interesting story to tell, and at the beginning, I really enjoyed this book. However, the more I read the more I thought she got lost in the weeds of trying to bring all three of these women’s separate, but connected stories into one cohesive novel. While Jenoff’s prose and lovely writing style does much to make up for some of these problems, I’m afraid the overall feeling I got was something a touch too random and not quite unified enough for my taste. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t look up other works by Jenoff, since as a writer, she really does appeal; I just think that this wasn’t such a successful effort for me. That’s why I think I can only give it three out of five stars, but I’ll dig around for something else of hers to see if this was an anomaly and not a pattern (I’m hoping it’s the former because she obviously has quite a following, which I’m sure she rightfully deserves).
Park Row Books (an imprint of Harper Collins) first released “The Lost Girls of Paris” by Pam Jenoff on January 29, 2019. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.