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.