Book Review for “The Postmistress of Paris” by Meg Waite Clayton.
Summary: “Wealthy, beautiful Naneé was born with a spirit of adventure. For her, learning to fly is freedom. When German tanks roll across the border and into Paris, this woman with an adorable dog and a generous heart joins the resistance. Known as the Postmistress because she delivers information to those in hiding, Naneé uses her charms and skill to house the hunted and deliver them to safety. Photographer Edouard Moss has escaped Germany with his young daughter only to be interned in a French labor camp. His life collides with Nanée’s in this sweeping tale of romance and danger set in a world aflame with personal and political passion.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical – WWII, France; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical.
To start with, you should know that this novel was also “Inspired by the real-life Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who worked with American journalist Varian Fry to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of France.” So, this isn’t totally biographical, because the main characters – Nanée, Edouard, and his daughter Luki – are fictional, while only Nanée is based on a real person. Now, Mary Jayne Gold was actually from my home town of Evanston, IL, which is a suburb just north of Chicago (which gave me a bit of vicarious pride every time it was mentioned). Details about Gold and her escapades during the war seem fairly sketchy, but notable enough to have her name closely associated with many famous people who escaped from the Nazis. All this, combined with how much I enjoyed Clayton’s previous novel, made this an absolute must-read for me (and when I couldn’t get the ARC, I pre-ordered the paperback)!
So, saying that this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is how I need to start this review. What I thought I would be getting is a story about a woman who delivers messages for the resistance in Paris under the Nazi occupation. While that is partially true, the whole delivery part is actually quite minor – in one sense, but extremely major – in another sense. What I mean by that is that this Nanée starts out just forwarding information to refugees, and ends up practically becoming a whole delivery truck on her own. In this way, Nanée’s being called a “postmistress” is both literal and figurative, but you’ll have to read the book to get the full gist of what I’m saying here.
In fact, while the assistance to these refugees is an important factor of this book, it also takes a back seat to how Nanée interacts with the specific people she’s helping in this book, and how her dedication to the mission of saving these people becomes practically an obsession. Obviously, getting too close to any one person she’s trying to help could be her own downfall, and yet she allows herself this weakness as she still maintains her undercover professionalism. Furthermore, she probably further endangered herself by always remembering that she held an American passport, which at times she seems to have thought was her own private “get-out-of-jail-free” card. It occurred to me that this was probably true up to a point – that being, when the US entered the war. This is probably why Clayton used a very short timeline from 1938 through early 1941, all before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, the ending here was a bit of a surprise, and I was terribly pleased with how it finished. Any alternative ending would probably have been saccharine and sentimental, not to mention unrealistic, considering the real-life person upon whom Nanée was modeled.
I also appreciated how Clayton cut this up into very short, beautifully written chapters, most of which came from the point of view of Nanée. These alternated with equally poetic chapters from the point of view of Edouard, and those from his daughter, Luki – all done in third person. In this way, Clayton brings out some minute details of the happenings with this small trio of characters, and forms a very cohesive and compelling story that comes to the forefront of everything else going on around them. This also allowed the minor characters to work as a type of window dressing on the story, giving it bright colors and subtle shades to enhance the main action.
However, these short chapters with varying points of view also built a bit of a distance between me, as a reader, and the characters portrayed. So, although I sympathized with them all, I was missing just a touch of emotional connection to them. Yes, I felt physically anxious when reading about the difficulties they endured, and was on the edge of my seat hoping they’d come out okay, but I’m afraid I was missing something that would make me cry, and I’ve no idea how she could have fixed that. Because of this, while I can wholeheartedly recommend this novel to anyone who loves WWII historical fiction, I’d say it deserves 4.75 stars out of five (and again, because I don’t have a ¾ star, it gets rounded up to 5, below).
“The Postmistress of Paris” by Meg Waite Clayton is available (via the following affiliate links) now in the US (or pre-order for the UK for release on February 17, 2022) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Rakuten Kobo (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.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.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#6).