Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Review: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I'm not a huge fan of books set during wartime (they are a little bit too real-life for me) but two words on the cover of this book caught my eye: Paris and library. How could I resist?

Odile is obsessed by books, so working at the American Library in Paris is a dream come true. Her family are against the idea but she's seen first-hand how important it is for a woman to have her own money and be independent. The library and its thriving community of students, writers, and fellow book-lovers is the perfect haven - until war looms, pitting friends and colleagues against each other. Suddenly the punishment for being caught with the 'wrong' book is severe.

The main part of the story is told from Odile's viewpoint: from 1939, when she applies for a job at the library, to the end of the war in 1945. The second timeline is a coming-of-age story about American teenager Lily, who is struggling following the death of her mother and the arrival of a young step-mother. The only person who seems to truly understand is the reclusive Frenchwoman who lives next door.

This story completely swept me away. The American Library is a fascinating setting. It is a real place and many of the characters mentioned are real people, who acted heroically keeping the library open and delivering books to their Jewish subscribers. Odile is an engaging character who wants to do the right thing but has led a sheltered life. She is unprepared for the way living in Occupied Paris will change the lives of her family and friends, causing some to crack under the pressure. Will she also betray those she loves? In 1980s America, Odile tries to pass on all she has learnt about family and friendships to teenage Lily, so she won't make the same mistakes.

The best part of this story is the library and the characters who work there. It would make a terrific film. I loved the way Odile references titles and quotes from her favourite books to help her cope, and the way she automatically categorises each book or subject according to the Dewey Decimal System. The point of the dual timeline is to help explain Odile's character and the choices she made forty years previously. It does mean the book seems overlong at times and I wasn't entirely convinced by the ending.

However, the historical detail is amazing and I found myself thinking a lot about the story after I had finished it. Recommended for anyone who loves historical fiction, this was a five-star read for me.

Thank you to Janet Skeslien Charles and Two Roads (John Murray Press) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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