Book Review for “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles.
Summary: “Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet has it all: her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal. Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Fiction – Literary, Women, Biographical; Settings: Historical – France, WWII; Contemporary – Montana, 1980s; Other Categories: Novel, coming-of-age, books, libraries.
This is one of those books that on the surface, tick all the right boxes. Women – check; historical – check; based on a true story and real people (biographical) – check; books and libraries – check; heroics and resisting Nazis – check; Paris – check; friendship, loss, betrayal, and secrets – check. Furthermore, Charles seems to have a very open writing style, that is very accessible, even with the French (and sometimes a couple German) words thrown in here and there. The narrative is more straightforward than lyrical, which was a bit unusual, considering much of this takes place in Paris – one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, Charles does dabble in waxing poetic when speaking about two things – food and books. With the former, some of the descriptions were truly mouthwatering. With the latter, it was the inspiring, and truly appropriate books and quotes that she found to insert at just the right moments of the story. This was probably the most charming part of this book for me, together with how Odile likes to categorize situations and people using books she knows and their Dewey Decimal system numbers!
So, we have a good premise for a story, and that this takes place at the American Library in Paris during WWII, means that there’s also going to be deception and intrigue. Obviously, Americans may have been neutral at the beginning of the war, but once Pearl Harbor happened, they were suddenly enemies of Germany and the Nazis. Anything associated with an enemy was therefore a possible source of subversion. On the other hand, the French who sympathized with their occupiers, or who just wanted favorable treatment (or extra rations), were known to have informed the Nazis of any suspicious activities, or the locations of people who might be dubious, especially Jews. Again, all this on the backdrop of a library, and all of the literary references, really made this sound like a winner for me. However, I did find some problems with this book.
Let’s start with the main protagonists, both of whom are fictional. We have Odile – who appears throughout the novel, and we have Lily – who is only in the 1980s sections. Of the two, Lily is the weaker character. She’s a teenager, who is too curious for her own good, and a bit of an outcast, socially. This is what attracts her to the illusive and secretive Odile, of whom the town isn’t terribly fond. Their connection makes sense, and I get why Charles included her, but the whole second timeline to better understand Odile felt extraneous. Yes, it is helpful to have another character’s perceptions of the main one, but Lily was a bit too self-absorbed and with enough of her own troubles, to really make that work properly. Furthermore, the Odile of the 1980s didn’t really mesh all that well with the Odile of the 1940s. Of course, people change, but I wasn’t convinced, and there were several things in the later timeline that just didn’t fit her nature. In addition, the whole adolescence romance bit in Lily’s story also didn’t work well, and I felt that too was unnecessary to the overall story. Plus, Lily’s snooping into Odile’s past and her discovery of some of Odile’s past felt pointless, because we were already watching them play out during the 1940s timeline long before Lily found any evidence of them.
Frankly, one timeline would have been enough, and I think that if Charles had stuck with just the 1940s sections, she would have been able to make Odile even more sympathetic, and turned her into a real heroine. As it was, there were times when Odile felt more like a victim who feels helpless and sorry for herself, than a woman who has to become a tough survivor. I have to admit that the romantic parts of Odile’s story weren’t as superfluous as Lily’s angst, but they felt a bit flat and cold. On the other hand, Odile’s friendships with the (real) employees of the Library, their (real) regular visitors, and her family were very well developed, and this was when Charles let Odile truly shine. For all of this, I think I liked it, but I was a bit disappointed in this book (and sadly, the ending only slightly mitigated that feeling), but I did like Charles’ writing, and concept (based on a true story) were good, and the real-life characters were vivid and sympathetic. But the overall execution fell a bit short. I’ll still recommend it but I think that for me, I can only give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Atria Books released “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles on February 2, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.