Monday, February 22, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles


I eagerly awaited the publication date of this novel and quickly bought my own copy so I could enjoy it at my own pace and not worry about returning it to the library. It's a good thing I did, because it took me almost three weeks in February before I finally started reading it. I picked it up and started reading it last weekend after deciding the two books I was already reading just didn't fit my weekend reading vibe. 

This is my second World War 2 novel this month, which is definitely a record for me. Any novel that has a bookstore or a library in it is one I have to read, so I couldn't wait another month to dig into the story of Odile Souchet in Paris during World War 2, and young Lily living in Montana in 1985. How do the two of them have anything in common? Well, Odile lives right next door to Lily and her family in the small town of Froid. Odile is reserved, always dressed to the nines, and is still, after forty years, described as "the war bride". Her husband, a former solider, has died, leaving Odile living on her own in Froid. 

Fascinated by her next door neighbor, Lily approaches Odile under the guise of working on a writing assignment for school. Lily can't wait to escape Froid, even though she's terribly worried about her mother's health. She sees Odile as her gateway to her dreams of being a writer and traveling the world. 

Odile and Lily hit it off, and soon Odile is teaching Lily French. Their mutual love of books is another bond, and Lily finds out Odile was a librarian in Paris. 

That's where most of the story takes place-Paris, during World War 2. Odile gets a job at the American Library in Paris, and it is her dream job. She is thrilled to be a librarian, and nothing smells better to her than the odor of all those books when she steps in the doors of the library. However, war is coming quickly, and Odile's simple dreams of falling in love, marrying, and continuing to work at the library fall apart as Nazis take over Paris. 

Odile's life in Paris is hard, to be sure. She is determined to do her part to keep the library open and safe from Nazis destroying the collection, as they've done to other libraries around Europe. Her close friends at the library all fall into danger--most are not natives to France, and as the world is drawn into war, each one becomes a foreign enemy that could be arrested and sent away. Food becomes scarce, and restrictions keep tightening. Odile's twin brother Remy joined the French army right away, and is now in danger. Paul, Odile's sweetheart, is a police officer who struggles to remain true to his devotion to Odile while under increasing pressure to work with the Nazis to maintain order in Paris. 

Odile's story is compelling; more so than Lily's. Maybe it's because it's 1985 and heck, I remember the 80's fairly well-I was a teen for part of them! However, Lily's struggle in a small town, with big changes to her home life, definitely echo the increasing change in family dynamics that occurred in the 1980's. I can't say much because I don't want to give it away, so I'll leave it at that. 

There's really not much suspense or mystery to this novel. It's more of a slow unraveling of a story that hadn't been told for decades. Now it's time for Odile to share her life story and forgive herself for her actions so long ago. 

This was a quick read, and full of literary references and characters who loved the written word. Men and women who risked their lives to protect books, deliver them to prisoners of war, and to Jews hiding in Paris. They realized the importance of storytelling and even when faced with possible arrest, kept doing their jobs. It was also pretty interesting to read about library work before computers and the internet. 

Fans of World War 2 fiction, novels about libraries, and stories of friendship are sure to enjoy this read. And yes, there really is an American Library in Paris, open to this day; it was founded in 1920. It makes me very happy to know it survived the horrors of war and operated throughout the occupation of Paris. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel set in Paris during World War 2 that features the American Library. It's about the risks librarians took to protect not only the collection, but kept providing books and information to citizens under siege and in danger. It's also a novel about friendship, forgiveness, and making peace with the past. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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