Book Review Historical

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Book 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.

There are many positive aspect to THE PARIS LIBRARY that will touch your heart, not least of which Odile’s story of joining the staff at the fabled American Library in Paris, and the people she meets and bonds with, to the all too real struggles they all go through as war is declared. When Paris falls to the invading Germans life goes from idyllic for Odile and her co-workers, to something beyond imagination.

And thus, the author does her best to not only tell us the story of the library and what it meant to those working there, but those that also found a place to call home within its walls. Heart-warming stories, difficult stories. Snapshots of hurt, hate, love, redemption, all amid the horror of war.

Odile is a complex, interesting character, somewhat naive and sheltered to begin with but slowly, she begins to show where her strengths lie, and also, in stark contrast, her failings too. It was this matching of light and dark for most of the characters that made for an interesting read, and draws you into the interconnecting web of stories that slowly evolve over the course of the book.

And while I really enjoyed following Odile’s journey, I was left somewhat adrift every time we ‘time’ jumped forward from the 1940s through to 1983, to join Lily, a young girl living next to door to Odile, in Montana. For me it felt too manufactured and, in the end, seemed to be a plot device simply to tell us something that was probably the only twist in the whole novel. And an odd one at that. Especially as it was never really given any gravitas. Like just one more missed opportunity, it slipped by leaving me feeling cheated.

This is a not a narrative told in a conventional way, but more a series of vignettes much like a series of snapshot photos in an album. A picture postcard of certain moments, of events, some real, some imagined, of fictional characters and of people who did actually work at the American Library in Paris, at the time.

Odile, obviously, the vehicle to tell all these stories as her fictional life intersected with those of real people. 

On the whole, this is a worthwhile read but not without a few things that irritated me. One being the short nature of most of these vignettes, and the lack of emotional connection to what I was reading. I found it difficult to connect with Odile and, in fact, any of the characters beyond the surface. We are never given any depth of emotion as these people glide across the page. Which is sad, really, given the events described and witnessed. When someone is being beaten and having her hair shorn in disgrace, seen as a collaborator, and another being shot by the Gestapo, we should feel threatened, shocked, and moved. Instead, these events felt narrated rather than lived.

In the end, The Paris Libarary was for me at least, something of a disjointed read, and it took me a lot longer to finish than usual, never mind the fact the ending felt rushed and unfinished. That said, however, if you love historical novels, multiple threads, and don’t mind time jumping a little, you might enjoy this one.

Janet Skeslien Charles
Simon & Schuster, 2020
Paperback, 416 pages
Historical Fiction

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