Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Paris Library

Title:  The Paris Library
Author:  Janet Skeslien Charles
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1982134194 / 978-1982134198

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Numbers floated around my head like stars."

Favorite Quote:  "Accept people for who they are, not for who you want them to be." 

The Paris library is actually the American Library in Paris. This book is based on the history of this library and its librarians during World War II. The story is told in two timelines - one in 1939 Paris, the other in 1980s Montana. At the heart of each is Odile Souchet.

In 1939, Odile is young, idealist, and determined. Through sheer persistence, she gets a job at the library. "The Library is my haven. I can always find a corner of the stacks to call my own, to read and dream. I want to make sure everyone has that chance, most especially the people who feel different and need a place to call home." Her father, a police officer, does not approve or understand. He wishes to see her married and settled; he keeps bringing home potential candidates. Her mother is in the shadow of her forceful husband. Odile's brother fights his own demons of expectations versus dreams. The war changes the directions of all their lives.

In 1983, Odile is a reclusive, odd widow living in a small-town in Montana. She is different and has never quite fit in. Her young teenage neighbor Lily is lost in her own way through her mother's illness and death and her father's remarriage. They connect because of a school project, and both find in the other a friend.

The plot of the book follows two lines. The main one is how young, idealist Odile in Paris survives the war and ends up a world away in small-town Montana. The side story is that of Lily and her growing up and dealing with the changes in her family.

As with most books that involve two time periods, one is usually more compelling than the other. In this case, it is, as the name of the book suggests, the story in 1939. That is a story steeped in history. The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 after World War I to bring servicemen and a devastated nation the light of books. The work was threatened by the German occupation during World War II. The librarians began an underground project of bringing books and other materials to Jewish patrons banned from the libraries. Some librarians returned to their American homes for the sake of safety. "But seriously, why books. Because no other things possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people's eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures." Through the dedication of the librarians, volunteers, and supporters, the library survived the war and has gone on to flourish. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020!

Within the context of this history is placed Odile as a librarian. Her story is one of war and loss. It is also of friendship, love, and betrayal. It is the betrayal that takes center stage and forever alters the direction of Odile's life. That is the compelling story of this book.

The story of 1983 Montana seems a frame around Odile's story of the war. It provides context in terms of memories and regrets. Ultimately, it also provides closure. 

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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