This is part of my Summer Reads series where I’ll be reviewing a series of “not just cookbooks”.
This week’s Summer Reads pick was “an instant New York Times, Washington Post, and USA TODAY bestseller” and is based on the true story of the librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II. Yup another historical fiction novel that I could not put down.
From the publisher:
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet seems to have the perfect life with her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into the city, 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 love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship” (Booklist), The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest places.
I’m always a bit leery of novels that move back and forth multiple time periods, but this one was exceptionally well done. The dual timelines were easy to follow and I felt like there was a good balance between “present day” (well, the 1980s) and wartime (although to be honest, I think I would have happily read an entire novel about each of the storylines). Some of the characters are based on real people and many of the events actually took place; the amount of detail (about both the inner workings of the library and the time period) is impressive. An overarching theme is also the importance of libraries, books, reading and the availability of information which, in our era of “fake news” feels even more impactful.
I loved reading about the everyday workings of the library through Odile’s eyes (truth be told, sometimes I wish I had trained to be a librarian – the routine and organisational aspects of a library really appeal to me!) and as the war unfolds, was fascinated to ready about how this impacted something so “innocent” as a library. Reading about the librarians’ efforts to maintain their services (including working their way around censorship and banned works) to all customers (delivering books to Jews who were banned from libraries under Nazi occupation) was very eye-opening to me – librarians as wartime heroes – who knew?
The accounts of daily life in wartime Paris we read about made me wish there was even more of this type of storyline/detail. Even if you (think) you “know” what went on during the war, because maybe you learned about it in school, textbooks don’t give this level of detail and living the war through the eyes of Odile’s family was definitely a more personal (and impactful) experience than textbook accounts.
We follow along as Odile secures her dream job at the Library and meets and falls in love with Paul. We follow her twin brother Rémy as he heads off to war, leaving behind his girlfriend and family. We follow how Odile’s life changes dramatically through the war and then we meet her again in 1983 – Lily’s neighbour who she befriends. As she opens up to Lily, we discover more about her past (and why she’s ended up in Montana). Surprisingly, the two stories intertwine and there are so many surprising similarities between Lily and Odile’s lives. Some reviews mentioned how they felt the book didn’t need this present-day part but I liked how the stories weaved together to complement and enrich each other.
This is a wonderful Summer Read – great for the beach, great for a day when it’s too hot to leave the air conditioned living room, great for rainy summer days and wonderful for long voyages if you’re able to take them.
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