1 April 2021 Susannah

The Paris Library

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I can really recommend The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. It is a story told in two time periods – one plotline concerns a young French girl named Odile, who lands her dream job with the American Library in Paris. She falls in love, makes mistakes and learns from them, and lives through all the dangers of keeping the library open during the Nazi occupation of Paris. This part of the story is based on fact – the American Library did remain open during the war, and the staff delivered parcels of books to their Jewish subscribers. I loved learning about this part of war history of which I knew nothing. One feels the tension of walking the streets of Paris with a pile of books destined for Jewish readers, when Nazi roadblocks could be around any corner; you feel the hunger of Parisians who spent long hours queuing even for turnips; you share in the solace that a good book can bring in times of stress.

The other plot is about an American girl named Lily, living in the USA in the 1980s. She has lost her mother, gains a stepmother, and gets to know her reclusive neighbour, Odile, who starts to teach her French language and culture. Lily too has lots of growing up to do, but she grows close to the elderly Frenchwoman and slowly learns something of her history.

This is a novel about courage and resilience, about secrets and betrayals, and about the human need for books and libraries. It is a novel that looks at the importance of choices. The book was moving and uplifting and I am not surprised it has been a best-seller. This is a novel for all who love books, and who love that glorious city of Paris (can there be anyone who doesn’t love Paris, I ask?). A great deal of research went into the background and the author has lived in Paris and actually worked at the American Library.

If you are interested in the history of the American Library in Paris, you’ll find a comprehensive timeline on its website. Scroll through it to see a photo of one of the book’s primary characters and you can even download the (then confidential) report of the library’s activities during WWII written by the director, Dorothy Reeder. Fascinating!

Do you enjoy novels based on actual events? Or novels about books (you know I do!)? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment.

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Featured image credit- The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, images from https://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/the-paris-library/about and https://www.goodreads.com

Comments (12)

  1. Sue Baillie

    I used the American library in Paris when my daughter was living there and I think this story is entirely silly and I would not recommend it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I am sorry you did not enjoy it. All my friends who have read it have really liked it. I guess it is all a matter of taste.

  2. I love Paris! I also love novels about the real brave, clever and fascinating women that have been neglected or written out if history – artists, scientists, spies, even librarians. Most recently, The Dictionary of Lost Words.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also loved The Dictionary of Lost Words! Yes, it is really good when important and brave woman, like Miss Reeder who kept the American Library going all through the occupation, are brought into prominence at last.

  3. Heather Grant

    I very much enjoy novels based on actual facts. One I read in 2019 was The Alice Network by Kate Quinn and is an excellent read! The Alice Network did exist during World War 1 and I feel this organisation has not won the recognition it deserves. The main protagonist in the novel is a figment of Kate Quinn’s imagination but the leader of the group, Louise de Bettignies did exist and her story and those in her network, is interwoven in this novel The horrendous fact is that the information she and her team of women gleaned from the Germans was, in many instances, not acted upon and ignored by the British Generals etc. Another nail in the coffin as to how many British senior officers during WW1 were an incompetent lot! Not all of them I might add.

    I have made a note of The Dictionary of Lost Words and will seek that book out. Thanks Susannah for all your recommendations. They are most appreciated.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That sounds like a fabulous recommendation – thanks, Heather. I have a couple of book vouchers, so may get it with them. Like you, I like novels based on actual history and having that era brought vividly alive. I learned so much history as a child from reading historical fiction. It may not all have been entirely accurate then, but over time I sorted out what was correct.

  4. Hi Susannah

    I was astonished to find The Paris Library on your newsletter, as it is my current bedside book. I bought it when it came out but have only just got around to reading it. Like you, I am thoroughly enjoying it, and although I am am only half way through, I expect to finish tomorrow as it is quite enthralling and engrossing. I completely agree with your reasons for recommending this book; it’s about Paris, book lovers working in a library under a range of difficult conditions, culminating in WW2 and based somewhat on history. It even makes some light humour out of the Dewey system!

    The parallel plots take the reader on two very emotive and emotional journeys. Even though I don’t know yet how it will end and whether and how the two parallel streams will achieve some resolution, I would already highly recommend it. To me it is reminiscent of the two novels by Nina George, “The Paris Bookshop” and “The Breton Bistro”, particularly The Paris Bookshop, with its homage to bibliotherapy. I will certainly seek out more information on the real Ms Reeder (I can hardly believe this as another example of nominative determinism) and her library.

    And I must say that book collector friend of yours in the adjoining article sounds out of control!

    Best wishes
    Chris

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Out of control indeed, but then who needs control when it comes to books?? All we need is more reading time.
      I am so glad you are reading and enjoying The Paris Library. I am keen to visit it if I can ever get to Paris again! I will email you some articles about Miss Reeder – yes a perfect name for a librarian!
      Thanks again for your fabulous contribution to my newsletter.

  5. Maria

    Another fascinating-sounding book, thank you. Books set in Paris have a head start with me. While I tend to avoid anything too traumatic, this war story sounds a little more approachable and I’ve added it to my list.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the magic of Paris! While you could feel the fear of Parisians during the Nazi Occupation, there were not horribly brutal scenes in the book.

  6. Jane Cooper

    I too love books about Paris and have a number of thermal of which I have enjoyed but my favourite is The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure who is an architect, the book is set in WW 2 and tells of the effects of the German occupation of Paris.
    Published in 2013 by Pan MacMillian

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for that recommendation, Jane. It sounds really good!

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