Review: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Title: The Paris Library

Author: Janet Skeslien Charles

Published: June 2nd 2020, Two Roads

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“‘Libraries are lungs,’ she scrawled, her pen barely able to keep up with her ideas, ‘books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive. Subscribers depend on us for news, for community. Soldiers need books, need to know their friends at the Library care. Our work is too important to stop now.’”

Inspired by true events, The Paris Library is an engaging historical novel by Janet Skeslien Charles.

A dual timeline introduces Odile Souchet, who is thrilled when she gains her dream job at The American Library in Paris in February of 1939. Under the direction of the aptly named Ms. Reeder, the library provides an extensive range of reading material in English and French to their subscribers, and as war begins, becomes a haven for the community. Forty years later a thirteen year old girl, Lily, living in small town Montana, introduces herself to her elderly neighbour, Mrs. Gustafson, marvelling at her extensive library and her ‘tres chic’ French accent. The two form an unusual bond, united by their dreams and their regrets.

The story of Odile in Paris is the more fascinating of the two, especially as it’s based in truth – The American Library was founded in 1920, and still exists today. In this novel, as WWII breaks out and the Germans make their way towards Paris, Ms. Reeder is determined that the library will remain open to serve the community. This not only includes welcoming patrons to the reading room, but also sending donated books and periodicals to French, British and Czech troops (about 20,000 tonnes in the autumn of 1940). Even when Paris is occupied by the Nazi’s, the library remains open, the librarian risking their lives by smuggling books to their Jewish patrons.

Populated by a delightful collection of multicultural characters, whose personalities are based on the actual library staff during that period, I enjoyed spending time with Odile among the stacks, easily imagining the good natured bickering of the regular patrons, and the camaraderie of the librarians.

Odile is a young, rather naive young woman, who lives at home with her middle class parents, and twin brother Rémy who is studying law. Her father, a police commissioner, is opposed to Odile working, preferring she find a husband. As the rumours of war become reality, Odile finds herself challenged by life under the Nazi regime – protecting the library, parting with her brother when he enlists, and losing everything when she makes a tragic error in judgement.

As the second timeline unfolds from 1983, we eventually discover how Odile ended up in Montana living next door to the teenage Lily. Facing challenges of her own Lily finds comfort and friendship with Odile, who tries to pass on the lessons she has learned. While I didn’t mind reading about Lily, I think I would have preferred that the author had simply chosen to concentrate on the American Library and Odile’s experience in Paris.

Book lovers will be drawn to this title, and won’t be disappointed. The history is interesting, the characters appealing, and the story engaging.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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