The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

One aspect of the Second World War that we don’t usually hear much about is the role of books and libraries, so I was immediately drawn to this new novel by Janet Skeslien Charles which tells the story of the American Library in Paris and the people who worked there during the Nazi occupation.

One of the novel’s two main narrators, twenty-year-old Odile, starts working at the library in 1939 at the beginning of the war. With her love of reading and obsession with learning the Dewey Decimal System, it’s Odile’s dream job and she quickly settles in, getting to know the other librarians and the people who come in to borrow books. Her happiness doesn’t last long, however, because soon the Germans cross the Maginot Line and enter Paris. With her twin brother Rémy fighting in the French army, these are difficult and worrying times for Odile, but her priority remains keeping the American Library and its collections safe from the Nazis and ensuring that those less fortunate can continue to find comfort in books.

Our second narrator is Lily, an unhappy twelve-year-old girl growing up in Froid, Montana in the 1980s. She has become intrigued by the reclusive elderly woman who lives next door and when she decides to interview her for a school project, we discover that the woman is Odile. As she gets to know Odile better and uncovers the sequence of events that brought her from Paris to Montana, Lily learns some important lessons that help her to deal with some of the problems in her own life.

There were many things to like about The Paris Library, yet I didn’t really enjoy the book as much as I’d been hoping to. The wartime story was fascinating, but I couldn’t help feeling that the 1980s one was unnecessary; dual timeline novels are very common these days and obviously a lot of people like them, but I often find that one of the two threads is a distraction from the other and adds very little to the novel as a whole. In this case, I felt that Lily’s could have been left out entirely without having much effect on the overall plot. Also, with Lily being such a young narrator, her story revolves around school, her relationships with boys and her best friend, and coming to terms with her widowed father marrying again; it makes the novel feel like YA fiction – which is fine, of course, but not what I was expecting.

I did find all the information on the American Library in Paris very interesting, especially when I discovered that some of the characters in those sections of the book were people who really existed, such as the library director, Dorothy Reeder, who refused to abandon the library when the war began and led the other librarians in a Resistance against the Nazis. I love the fact that the library managed to continue operating throughout the war, in one way or another, with the librarians providing reading material to soldiers and ensuring that books were delivered to Jewish members who were no longer able to visit the library in person.

The Paris Library is worth reading for the wartime storyline, the history and the many references to books I’ve read or would like to read, but if Janet Skeslien Charles had just concentrated on Odile’s story she would have had more space to develop the characters and relationships and I think that would have made it a stronger, more emotional novel.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

22 thoughts on “The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

  1. Lark says:

    I’m intrigued by this one, but I’m with you on dual timelines; there’s always one I enjoy more than the other, and sometimes one of the timelines just feels superfluous. I wonder when their popularity will begin to wane.

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I often find it very frustrating when the timeline changes, almost always just when things are getting really interesting and I just want to stay with that storyline.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it can be frustrating and I often can’t see any good reason for it – it seems as if the modern storyline has been added just for the sake of having one.

  3. Jo says:

    I sometimes feel that these authors are told to chuck in a dual timeline because it will sell more books. That said I think it has to be the right gap between the stories and relevant. I am not sure putting a young girl with all the entails, encompasses the right choice when dealing with the historic timeline you have described.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, dual timeline novels seem to be the fashion at the moment – they’re impossible to avoid! In this book, I really don’t think the teenage girl storyline with the focus on school and boyfriends was the right choice.

  4. Constance says:

    I do have a trip to Provence and Paris on my horizon if the world ever returns to slightly-normal so I will make a mental note to read this closer to my trip. I agree that books about books can be delightful. There are definitely too many dual time line books recently; however, if they were uniformly good like Susanna Kearsley I don’t think we would complain!

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