By: Janet Skeslien Charles
My Goodreads Review: 3/5 stars
There are two settings used in The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. Most of the book is set in Paris before and during World War II, through the perspective of Odile, a book-loving librarian who works at the American Library in Paris. The secondary setting is in a small town in Montana in the 1980s, with the perspective of a young girl named Lily. As the book goes back and forth between Paris 1940s and Montana 1980s, we learn that Odile and Lily are neighbours. Lily is intrigued by her mysterious, elegant and older neighbour, Odile, eventually forming a friendship with her. Lily wants to know everything there is to know about Odile and her previous life in Paris.
Many of the characters Charles includes in her book are loosely based on real people and their experiences protecting the library.
“Libraries are lungs, […] books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”
I really enjoyed the unique viewpoint of this story. I have read many books about Paris during the Nazi occupation but never through a librarian’s perspective. In addition, I have never read about the experiences of foreign nationals living in Paris during this time, which I also found interesting. I always assumed that foreigners would immediately return home once the war began, but for some, Paris was their home.
As a book lover, you can’t help but be drawn to this story. It was inspiring to read how these characters risked their lives to protect the library, the visitors, and, of course, the books themselves. The books continued to bring joy into so many people’s lives during a time of fear and darkness.
I really liked the side characters in this book. They all played a role in creating a welcoming library for all visitors. I especially liked Margaret’s story. Her loneliness in Paris, married to a man who barely noticed her, solved by her friendships in the library was heartwarming. I loved seeing her character evolve into an independent, confident woman. Additionally, the choices she makes after the Nazi occupation added a sense of realness to the book that I think often lacked.
The second main character, Lily, whose perspective is also included throughout the book, took me a bit of time to connect with, but by the end, I was in love with the woman Lily had become. She began as a shy, sad young girl and grew into an independent, confident woman. Lily’s passion for French culture, food and language was enjoyable to read. Odile brought so much life into Lily’s small-town childhood.
I absolutely loved the relationship Odile, and Lily grew to have. They filled voids in each other’s lives that helped them navigate the current obstacles they were facing. Odile felt alone and isolated, and Lily offered a new breath of life. Lily, experiencing loss and sorrow, was given an escape through Odile’s friendship.
“Then, with a handful of pages left, I started to dread the fact that this world that I loved was coming to an end. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I read slowly, just savoring the scenes.”
Things I didn’t really like:
One of the major struggles I had with this book was with Odile. I found her story and her perspective to be a bit boring. I loved reading about her love of books and how she memorized the Dewey decimal system, connecting it to different times in her life, but other than that, I didn’t feel much connection to her. At times, I found her character lacked depth. The way she acted in some scenarios was frustrating and childish, especially in the end. I also didn’t feel her life in Montana matched her character, and when I was reading those sections, I felt pretty disconnected from the rest of the story.
As well, I really struggle with the ending of this story. The way Odile chooses to punish herself for what she did to her friend was unbelievable. Her final choice would have caused so much hurt and sadness to her family and friends, who had already lost so much. She should have owned up to what she had done, ended relationships that should have been ended but not left her family the way she did. Her final decision after the war seemed overly dramatic, and although we don’t get much closure, one could only imagine the devastation it caused her family. Odile, in my opinion, took a very selfish stance at the end of the war, a path I think few would have taken. I see many reviews refer to this book as a “feel good” World War II book but, I didn’t feel good at the end of this book.
“Your father’s old, he won’t change. And dogs don’t have kittens, so you’re as stubborn as he. The only thing you can change is the way you see him.”
My Overall Opinion:
This is an okay historical fiction novel that gives the reader a glimpse into life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. However, there are so many excellent World War II novels that I would recommend over this one, like The Nightingale. Unfortunately, this book just didn’t excite me.
Have you read this book? Did you feel differently?