3 star, adult

Review: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife

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.

A powerful novel that explores the consequences of our choices and the relationships that make us who we are—family, friends, and favorite authors—The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest of places.

“We all have a book that changed us forever,” I said. “One that let us know that we’re not alone. What’s yours?”

The Paris Library lived up to its name, bringing bursts of sympathy and wonder in equal measures. With a deep look into Odile’s past during the Nazi Occupation in Paris and her current life in the States, the biggest question one can ask is, how do the two points in her life connect?

I came in thinking this was going to be equal, alternating POVs between Lily and Odile, but it definitely focuses on Odile a lot more in the past. Lily’s story fills in the gaps and gives us glimpses into who Odile somehow becomes while pieces of the puzzle are still missing. I will start off by saying that I docked off stars because it does get slow in the middle at times, and the flow doesn’t always propel me to flip through the book as fast as possible. It meanders and lets us laze in the pages like we are going out on a stroll or browsing aimlessly in a library. But this is the only reason why it’s anything less than 5 stars, let me tell you.

Based on real individuals who were actual subscribers of the American Library in Paris during WWII, we get to see the full timeline of the Nazi Occupation from 1940 onwards until the Allies liberated this city a few years later. When Germans invaded the city and started censoring what could be read – after all, there were a number of Jewish authors and writings that just had to go apparently – and by whom, one would not think you could make a stand in as simple of a manner as keeping a library open.

When we think back on history and those we consider heroes, have any of us dreamt of a hero that could look like you or I? Someone who dared to keep reading, who dared to show up and provide books to Jewish subscribers, who dared to say that words and stories are important enough to risk punishment? This is what The Paris Library showed.

While Odile was the protagonist in this timeline, we meet a unique cast of characters who frequent the library. From an unlikely pair of good friends, one British and one French, who constantly bickered and at times were at odds due to the war; to the Jewish professor who was trying to complete a fictional work of her own; and a Canadian who browsed the stacks until she had to leave when Canada joined the war. And these were only the subscribers!

The library staff itself was as varied. The brave American headmistress of the library who toughed it out and showed a woman could be in charge of such an institute; to Odile’s best friend, a British woman who was jilted by her husband, fell in love with the library and stayed behind; and the Russian who survived one war only to fall into another one even though he wasn’t a soldier anymore.

They showed their defiance in minute different ways, most notably delivering books hidden in their bags to Jewish subscribers, it was clear they had to learn to wear two faces to survive. People were barely getting by with their food rations and more checkpoints were randomly stationed each day to check for contraband items. Living two lives was not only beneficial, it was essential. But the Library had each other.

Hidden among the books, I read: He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know,…and another life running its course in secret. We could never know our loved ones, and they would never know us. It was heartbreaking, it was true. Yet there was solace: in reading other people’s stories, I knew that I wasn’t alone.

I can’t emphasize how eye-opening it is to read such stories, particularly because they’re based on real life individuals who lived through it. Odile was a great character, although she’s purely fictional, but we get to see piece by piece the choices she makes during the war, good or bad, that impact how her life turned. From having a best friend and a beau she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, she ends up in Montana somehow. Not until near the end do we see how much Lily helped her reconcile with some of these choices. I kind of wish we got to see more of the after in Montana looking at the older Odile.

Overall, whether it was a little slow paced or not, The Paris Library shows us this piece of history that not all of us think about, especially not here in Canada where we were not involved. It makes us contemplate the what-ifs but more importantly, reminds us of the power of stories that is worth defying even Nazis.

Maybe sometimes we forget why we read or that sense of first awe in a good story. Here, it shows us we are all connected universally in the knowledge that a good story lives on in every one of us who flips open those same pages.

The words we use shape perception, as do the books we read, the stories we tell one another, and the stories we tell ourselves…A friend said she believes that in reading stories set in World War II, people like to ask themselves what they would have done. I think a better question to ask is what can we do now to ensure that libraries and learning are accessible to all and that we treat people with dignity and compassion.

Janet Skeslien Charles

Overall Recommendation:

The Paris Library delves into WWII history among the unlikeliest of heroes: the staff of the American Library in Paris. As Odile and her colleagues face the impending Nazi Occupation, they must decide what they will risk to stay open and continually share the power of stories that bring hope and light during the darkest of times. As we piece together the steps and choices Odile takes that eventually leads her to a small town in Montana decades later, we see how those choices lead her to her teenage neighbour Lily who may just be the only person who can save her from the ghosts of her past. With characters based on their real counterparts that lived through this part of history, this book will surely entertain you through the highs and lows as you meander after this cast through the lovely stacks in this beautiful library.


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