Monday, February 1, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I'm a total sucker for World War II historical fiction, so when the publisher offered me a Netgalley of The Paris Library, it was a no brainer.

We meet Odile Souchet in two stages of life, first in 1939 in Paris, where she has just accepted her dream job at the the American Library in Paris and again in 1980s Montana where a lonely girl named Lily wonders what brought her unusual neighbor to her tiny country town all the way from France.  Young Odile is emotional and impetuous and entirely unprepared for the years of war and occupation that soon overtake her beloved Paris.  Even as she clings to normalcy at the library, where she befriends a rich and quirky cast of characters, her world is changing.  Determined to keep providing books to soldiers and Parisians alike, the staff of the library bands together to stay open, daring even to deliver books to their Jewish subscribers who have been ordered by the occupying Nazis not to enter.

As the war wears on, Odile finds that she doesn't know anyone as well as she thought she did, including herself.  Slowly Odile's eyes are opened to the cold realities of the wartime world even as her blinders to her own privilege fall away.  Unfortunately, when stubborn, outspoken Odile, causes irreparable harm with just a few thoughtless words, her life takes on an unexpected trajectory.

In more modern day Montana, Lily endures a tragedy at home and takes refuge in her newfound friendship with the town's outsider, Odile.  Together the two will finish the learning the same lessons that Odile began to learn in wartime Paris.  Together they'll learn the power of forgiveness and what it means to truly put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Admittedly, I've been a little tired of the dual narrative historical fiction with a modern day perspective thrown in, but I warmed to it over the course of the book.  What's remarkable about this plot device in The Paris Library is that the modern day perspective really pulls its own weight and doesn't become an interlude to hurry away from to get back to the historical story.  Lily is an honest, genuine character and her budding friendship with and curiosity about Odile provides a generous framework for the historical story.

Charles beautifully brings to life her Paris Library characters who are based on the real people who heroically kept the library open through the years of the occupation.  She excellently captures their comradery and the magic of the place Odile loves so much.  Odile herself is a bewilderingly naive character that it took me a little work to like, but as the story proceeds, her coming of age, while slow, is ultimately believable.

 The Paris Library should satisfy World War II fiction lovers and book lovers alike.