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!