Review: The Paris Library

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a moving novel of historical fiction, Janet Skeslien Charles's second novel, The Paris Library gives us two protagonists, Odile Souchet, a young woman who ignores her police officer father's advice and takes a job at the American Library in Paris shortly before WWII, and Lily, a teenage girl living in Froid, Montana in the 1980's, reeling from the death of her mother, and adjusting to her father's new wife, Ellie, and basically trying to grow up into a woman like her neighbor, Odile. Odile's story of when, how, and why she has moved to Froid plays out over the course of the novel, culminating in a moving scene in which one sees that as much as Odile saves Lily from her sorrow, so too, has Lily saved Odile.

This is a beautiful novel of historical fiction that shows how books and libraries can illuminate the darkest of times.

The audiobook is beautifully narrated by Nicky Diss, Sarah Feathers, and Esther Wane, with an afterword read by the author.

"Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life." - Fernando Pessoa

Established in 1920, the American Library in Paris was remarkable in that it remained open during the German occupation, in part thanks to a German librarian (the so-called Biblioteksschutz, or library "protector") working for the Third Reich, who warned the library staff and patrons of impending risks from Gestapo traps and raids. Books provided a means for so many, from regular citizens to prisoners of war, to have some form of escape from the harsh realities of the occupation. The brave library staff, forming a sort of intellectual resistance movement, continued to loan books to Jewish patrons, even going so far as to hand-delivering them when Jewish patrons were banned from the library by the Germans. There are some indications that they may have hidden some Jewish patrons in secret rooms within the building. In Charles's well-researched novel, we see the real stories of the library staff merged into fictional accounts inspired by real life, and the heartache that resulted from Nazi collaborators, many of whom wrote letters denouncing their compatriots to the Germans. In spite of the maelstrom around them, APL staff worked bravely, for the good of their members.

Readers can learn more about the American Library in Paris and its history on their website.

I received a digital audio review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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