Monday 22 November 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

US/Canada cover

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Fictional Drama
WWII / 1980s
Paris/  Montana

The Paris Library is a two-timeline story, set in Paris during World War II and in a small Montana town in the 1980s. Based on the history of the American Library in Paris and its role in supporting first troops across Europe and later the resistance to Nazi occupation, the novel uses the device of memories revived and reconsidered through the interest of a teenage girl in her reclusive, private neighbour as its construct.

Lily, the teenager in Montana, doesn’t fit well in her small town: she craves a life of literature and art, of travel and adventure. She barges into her neighbour Odile’s life, lonely and curious about this war bride and her self-imposed distance from the community in which she lives. Odile becomes a mentor of sorts, Lily’s interest and actions forcing her to revisit the years of occupation and the secrets and betrayals they contain.

The American Library, dedicated to scholarship and open to all who loved and respected books, regardless of country of origin, race, or class, was a refuge for expatriates, displaced people, and Parisians alike for much of the war. But even the oversight of the sympathetic German officer assigned to monitor its activities – himself a librarian and a colleague of the director prior to the war – cannot save everyone from Nazi cruelty. As people disappear, some briefly, some forever, Odile’s last vestiges of her happy, innocent life as one of the librarians disappear with them. 

Most of the book is set in the Paris timeline, and of the two I found this the most interesting for its depiction of occupied Paris, both the horror and the mundane. There was, for me, a significant educational aspect, too, regarding the Library’s role during those years. The characterization of the Library’s habitu├ęs created a sense of the rich life of its patrons and its importance to them; for many it took on the role of both private club and a found family, just as Odile does for Lily as the girl struggles with her father’s remarriage and her place in a new family. 

There were a couple of niggles. I felt distanced as I read Odile’s story. I was shown and told, but never, for me, did I have a sense of deep emotion being conveyed. Perhaps, though, this was a device meant to reflect the detachment of memory after forty years. More disturbing to me were the occasional chapters in the war years written from another character’s point of view. The book does not have an omniscient narrator; if these are Odile’s memories we are experiencing, then I could not reconcile how there could be another point of view, except as relayed by her. 
Overall, an interesting story, one that I both enjoyed and learned from. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L Thorpe

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