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.

Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure This is another book that I’ve read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another interesting read – though a very dark one.

The story is set in France in 1785, just a few years before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy, has arrived in Paris commissioned with an important but gruesome task – the destruction of the cemetery of Les Innocents. As the oldest and largest cemetery in the city, Les Innocents has now become overcrowded, smelly and unsanitary. To prevent it becoming even more of a health hazard than it already is, Jean-Baptiste has been given the job of destroying the cemetery and its church, emptying the graves and arranging for reburial elsewhere.

The novel is based on historical fact – Les Innocents really did need to be removed in the 18th century in order to purify the surrounding area and a market place was later built on the site of the old cemetery. However, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is fictional and in Pure Andrew Miller imagines what it may have felt like to be the person responsible for carrying out such an unpleasant and controversial task. Everyone has an opinion on the destruction of the cemetery and as Jean-Baptiste continues his work, he learns just how deeply people feel about it.

During his time in Paris, Jean-Baptiste lodges with the Monnards, whose daughter Ziguette is not at all pleased with the removal of the cemetery she has been able to see from her window all her life. On his first inspection of the church, he meets the organist Armand de Saint-Méard, who will lose his job when the building is demolished. In another building on the site live the sexton and his young granddaughter, Jeanne, both of whom have devoted their lives to Les Innocents. And then there are the men – ex-miners from the mines of Valenciennes – summoned to Paris by Jean-Baptiste to help with the excavations of the graves. All of these people are affected in some way by what is happening and Jean-Baptiste receives both support and opposition.

I enjoyed the first half of this book which deals with Jean-Baptiste’s first days in Paris, getting to know the people in and around the cemetery, and deciding how to proceed with the job he has been given. I loved the portrayal of a young man experiencing life in a big city, so desperate to fit in that he lets his new friends persuade him to exchange his smart brown suit for a pistachio green silk one. France is heading towards Revolution and although this never becomes a big part of the plot, the hints are there in the references towards progress, a group of rebellious young men who call themselves the ‘party of the future’, grafitti daubed on walls, the contrast between the working class and the aristocracy – and a doctor called Guillotin who arrives at the cemetery to study the skeletons.

I’m not sure what went wrong with the second half of the book, but I started to lose interest at the point when the miners arrived in Paris and work on the cemetery began. I had found it interesting to read about the preparations, the inspections that had to be made and what the work would involve, but the descriptions of the actual excavations started to feel repetitive. I was also hoping for more character development, but apart from Jean-Baptiste himself the other characters have very little depth. Two of them commit acts of violence towards the end of the book, yet I didn’t feel that their motivations were fully explored and the consequences of both actions seemed to be resolved too quickly.

Pure is a fascinating novel, especially if you’re interested in historical fiction set in pre-Revolutionary France. I really liked Andrew Miller’s style of writing, but my lack of emotional engagement with the characters and the other problems I’ve mentioned above left me feeling slightly disappointed at the end.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

A Glimpse into 1960s Paris – a guest post by Rachel Hore

It’s not often that I have the chance to introduce a guest post here at She Reads Novels, but today I’m pleased to welcome author Rachel Hore to the blog to tell us about researching 1960s Paris for her new novel A Week in Paris which has been published in the UK this week.

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore

A GLIMPSE INTO 60s PARIS by Rachel Hore

My new novel, A Week in Paris, opens in 1961, when Fay Knox, a young English violinist, visits the city with her orchestra and learns secrets of her family’s wartime past. What was Paris like at that time and how did I go about researching it?

Reading histories of the period gave me the context. Paris, though glamorous, elegant and romantic, a cradle of new ideas in philosophy and high art, was still socially conservative, France as a whole even more so. In 1958, after a period of unstable government and succeeding crises over the war of independence in Algeria, General de Gaulle was recalled as President and a period of strong rule ensued. It wasn’t until the students’ riots and sit-ins of May 1968 that the young and dispossessed really challenged the aging, authoritarian head of government, and change was finally, if painfully slowly, set in motion.

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli (2014)

In other ways, too, the liberal sixties came late to Paris. A glance at the popular music hits of 1961 reveals months of No.1s for traditional French crooners Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, with a young Johnny Hallyday making an appearance with ‘Kili Watch’ and, bizarrely for January, Richard Anthony singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’. This picture had not changed much by early 1964 when the Beatles played a series of concerts at the Olympia music hall. An interviewer had to ask, ‘What is Beatlemania?’ and there were no girls screaming and fainting. Jazz is still big in this period. On her arrival in the city, Fay spots a poster about the trumpeter Miles Davis playing the Olympia.

Paris Match March 1961

Paris Match March 1961

Guidebooks for 1961 were immensely helpful for my research. The Dolphin Guide to Paris, written for American tourists, was full of black and white photographs of the period; a student jazz band jamming on the quays of the Left Bank of the Seine and haute couture models wearing the latest boxy coats – like Fay’s. My copy of Paris Match magazine featuring film-maker Jean-Luc Godard’s elegantly sexy wife Anna Karina made its way into my narrative, as did the Gateway Guide’s advice to fashion-hunters on a budget to visit Worth, Dior and Schiaparelli’s ’ cheaper ‘boutiques’ or to satisfy themselves with the big department stores, Printemps and Galeries La Fayette.

A Bout de Souffle

Poster of A Bout de Souffle

Much has been written about French film of the time. Fay’s fellow musician Sandra is excited when her French boyfriend holds out the possibility of meeting Alain Delon, the heart-breaker star of 1960’s Purple Noon. In the same year came A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard, which with its bold visual style and innovative use of jump cuts was hailed as an important example of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Other practitioners included Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), both released in 1959. Movies, of course, can be a gift to the novelist conducting research as long as one weighs up their veracity.

A rest from sightseeing

A rest from sightseeing

Research can only take the fiction-writer so far. The trick for me was to recognize when to leave it all behind and to enter instead the world of 1961 Paris I’ve imagined – the world Fay sees and in which she lives and loves. When I could hear her voice I knew that it was time to put the books away.

Text and photos ©Rachel Hore 2014 unless stated otherwise.

The Frost of Springtime by Rachel L. Demeter

The Frost of Springtime When I was offered the opportunity to take part in a blog tour for Rachel L. Demeter’s The Frost of Springtime, I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept. I read a lot of historical fiction novels and many of them have an element of romance, but I tend not to be drawn to books that are specifically classed as ‘historical romance’ as this one is. The setting sounded intriguing, though, so I decided to give it a try.

The Frost of Springtime is set during the Paris Commune of 1871, a brief period during which a revolutionary government ruled Paris. The novel begins with Vicomte Aleksender de Lefèvre rescuing a young girl, Sofia Rose, who has been sold into a Parisian brothel by her own mother. Sofia becomes Aleksender’s ward but she is later separated from her guardian while he goes away to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.

When Aleksender returns to Paris accompanied by his friend, Christophe Cleef, he finds that the city has been torn apart by revolution, protest and destruction. At home, too, things are changing. His father’s death has left him with new responsibilities and an altered relationship with his brother…and the little girl he saved from a life of misery and abuse has matured into a beautiful young woman of nineteen. Left scarred by his traumatic wartime experiences, Aleksender is in need of love and comfort and it seems that Sofia can provide them. But what about his wife, Elizabeth, the woman he married years earlier as part of an arranged marriage and has never loved the way he loves Sofia?

The Frost of Springtime is a dark and atmospheric story with some great descriptions of a Paris in political turmoil. Although there is certainly a strong romantic thread running through the centre of this novel, there is also quite a lot of history. In fact, there could be too much history for those who are looking purely for a love story, but for me personally the balance was about right. I had no previous knowledge of the Paris Commune and now that I’ve learned a bit about it from reading this book I would like to know more. I may have to do some further reading on the subject!

Aleksender and Sofia were both strong characters – characters I was interested in and cared about. Unless you just don’t like the idea of the age difference or a man falling in love with a girl who had been his ward, I’m sure you’ll feel the same and will be hoping for a happy ending for the two of them. However, I did also like Elizabeth and had a lot of sympathy for her as she really hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t deserve to be treated badly. Aleksender’s behaviour sometimes disappointed me because it wasn’t always what you would expect from the hero of a romantic novel but this could be partly explained by the fact that he is suffering from what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experiences at war.

frostofspringtimebanner I’m glad I didn’t let my doubts about historical romance put me off reading this book as I did enjoy meeting Aleksender and Sofia and learning about such an interesting period of French history.

If you’d like to read more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule at Enchanted Book Promotions – and don’t forget to enter the tourwide giveaway for an Amazon gift card at this link: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris Of all the new books being published this year, this is one that I’ve really been looking forward to, having read and enjoyed all seven of Edward Rutherfurd’s previous books – my two personal favourites, Sarum, set in and around the English city of Salisbury, and Russka, which covers almost two thousand years of Russian history; his other two ‘big city’ novels, London and New York (probably the two I’ve enjoyed the least); his two books on the history of Ireland, Dublin and Ireland Awakening; and The Forest, the story of England’s New Forest.

After reading all of those, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Paris but I was surprised to find that I was wrong. With all of his other novels, Rutherfurd has followed the same format: beginning in the distant past then moving forward chronologically through the centuries, he attempts to tell the story of a city or a country’s entire history by following several families down through the generations. Paris has a very different structure.

In this book we concentrate on one set of characters who are living in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the era known as the Belle Époque). Most of these characters are introduced in the first few chapters of the book and belong to six families, all of different social classes and political backgrounds. First, there’s the bourgeois Blanchard family – Jules Blanchard, the owner of the Josephine department store, and his three children, Gerard, Marc and Marie. Next, there’s Thomas Gascon, an iron worker, and his charismatic younger brother, Luc. There’s the aristocratic Roland de Cygne and his enemy, the revolutionary Jacques Le Sourd. And finally, a Jewish family, the Jacobs, and the Renards, who are merchants. The personal stories of all of these people and their ancestors are cleverly woven around the events that shaped the history of Paris.

Interspersed with this main storyline are several chapters in which we go further back in time and meet some of the earlier generations of our six families. There’s a chapter telling the story of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, for example, and another set in the city’s Jewish community in the 14th century. However, I was disappointed that some of the earlier periods in France’s history were given very little attention at the expense of the Belle Époque chapters. There was nothing prior to the 13th century so the Romans were completely ignored, Napoleon was barely mentioned at all, and I also couldn’t believe that we were only given one short, thinly plotted chapter on the French Revolution. I can see that choosing to focus more on the 1875-1940 thread of the novel allowed Rutherfurd to develop more complex storylines, but unfortunately his characters are just not strong enough to make this new format work. I still thoroughly enjoyed Paris and don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t; it’s just that I’m sure I would have loved it more if it had followed the same chronological structure as the previous books.

While I don’t have any problems with the factual content of Rutherfurd’s books, they do require you to suspend disbelief. You have to be able to accept that Thomas Gascon works on both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower and is singled out by Gustave Eiffel from all the other hundreds of workers, that another of our fictional characters spends an evening with Ernest Hemingway and another one models for Coco Chanel, to give just a few examples. Another method he uses is to have the characters conveniently taking sightseeing tours of famous buildings and landmarks, such as the Palace of Versailles or the Père Lachaise cemetery. But although this kind of name-dropping can be annoying in other historical fiction novels, I actually don’t mind it in Rutherfurd’s books and I know he does it because it enables him to show us as many of the city’s famous figures and important events as he possibly can. Sometimes, though, it’s the smaller details and snippets of information that I enjoy the most – a description of a beautiful mille-fleur tapestry or a mention of the famous book shop, Shakespeare and Company.

I know these aren’t the sort of books that would appeal to everyone, though, as you do need to be genuinely interested in learning about the history of the locations each book covers and you also have to be prepared for the fact that most of his books are around 800-1000 pages long. I think of Rutherfurd’s books as interesting, entertaining history lessons. The quality of his writing is nothing very special and his characters are often very thinly drawn, but when you reach the end of one of his novels you feel that you’ve really learned a lot and have gained a good understanding of the place you’ve been reading about.

While this book was not without its flaws, I did love Paris. It’s not his best book by any means, and I definitely prefer the more linear structure of Sarum, Russka and the others, but this book was still a big improvement on his last one, New York. One problem I had noted with New York was that Rutherfurd seemed to run out of ideas towards the end, making the last few chapters very weak. This was not the case at all with Paris – in fact, the final chapter, on World War Two and the French Resistance was one of my favourites. It has definitely been worth the time and effort it took to read this book – and it has left me wanting to visit Paris again soon. I’m not officially taking part in Paris in July (I read this book in June) but Paris would have been a perfect choice!

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies' Paradise The Ladies’ Paradise is only the second book I’ve read by Zola; my first was Thérèse Raquin and the two are very, very different. Au Bonheur des Dames, to give it its French title, was published in 1883 and is the story of a Paris department store, based on the real-life Le Bon Marché.

At the beginning of the novel, Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two younger brothers, hoping to find work in her uncle’s draper’s shop. She is disappointed to discover that he is unable to offer her a job because his shop, along with the other small shops in the street, is losing business to a new department store, the Ladies’ Paradise. The new store is able to offer a larger selection of products at cheaper prices all under one roof, and none of the smaller traders can hope to compete. Still, Denise desperately needs to earn money to support her brothers so although she understands how her uncle feels, she is pleased when she is offered a job at the Paradise.

Denise quickly finds that life as a salesgirl at the Paradise is not easy but she’s determined to succeed and overcome whatever obstacles are put in her way. And when she catches the eye of the owner of the Paradise, Octave Mouret, he soon discovers that she is a woman with morals and principles; it’s obvious that she is not going to give him any encouragement – but this only makes him want her more.

I was hoping to love this book as much as Thérèse Raquin but that didn’t happen. The Ladies’ Paradise is a book that I enjoyed, but not one that I loved. It offers some fascinating insights into both Parisian life and the rise of the department store in the late 19th century – and of course, the idea of a larger, cheaper store putting all the small, independent shops out of business is still very relevant today – but I disliked most of the characters and while the long descriptions of the silks, satins and other fabrics sold at the Paradise were beautifully detailed I did get a bit bored after a while. Maybe I just don’t like shopping enough!

However, I did find it fascinating to read about the way the Paradise was run and what it was like to work there. In some ways working at the Paradise was a very different experience from working in retail today, one of the biggest differences being that the salesgirls employed by the Paradise lived and ate on the premises and were treated almost like servants. But from a selling and marketing perspective, I was surprised to learn how modern and sophisticated Mouret’s methods were; a lot of the ideas he had for running the store, advertising its products and attracting customers are still used today (though I didn’t really like the implication that women are so easy to trick and tempt into parting with their money).

The only character I really liked was Denise. I had sympathy with all the ordeals she faced after starting her new job: having trouble fitting in with the other women, feeling that her clothes and hair weren’t right, being bullied by other employees, and worrying about making enough money to take care of her two younger brothers. I found it harder to like or care about any of the other characters (Denise’s brother, Jean, particularly annoyed me – surely he was old enough to take more responsibility for himself and his actions), though I did admire what Mouret had achieved in making the Paradise such a success.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book because I still found a lot of things to enjoy about it, but I’m hoping the next Zola novel I read will be more to my taste than this one. Any suggestions are welcome!