Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife.
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet has it all: her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.
A powerful novel that explores the consequences of our choices and the relationships that make us who we are—family, friends, and favorite authors—The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest of places.
Huge thank you to Atria Books and Netgalley for providing this e-arc in exchange for my honest review.
I am a huge fan of historical fiction! I was browsing Netgalley for books to request when I came across The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. The cover is absolutely gorgeous and immediately grabbed my attention. I read the synopsis and was hooked. I requested and was lucky enough to receive an e-arc!
The Paris Library follows two young women through two timelines. Odile is a young woman living in Paris during the 1930’s-40’s. Odile has just started as a librarian at the American Library in Paris (the ALP). The book follows her journey throughout the Nazi occupation of Paris and WW2. Lily is a teenage girl in Montana in the 1980’s. Lily is a student who is fascinated by everything French. She decides to interview her neighbor, Odile, for a school project about France.
I absolutely adored The Paris Library. It is first and foremost a love letter to readers. The overarching theme of The Paris Library is the power of books and the importance of libraries. I felt so connected to Odile whenever she described her love of books, libraries, and reading.
There are so many fantastic quotes . . .
Breathing in the best smell in the world—a mélange of the mossy scent of musty books and crisp newspaper pages—I felt as if I’d come home.
I loved being surrounded by stories, some as old as time, others published just last month.
I never judged a book by its beginning. It felt like the first and last date I’d once had, both of us smiling too brightly. No, I opened to a page in the middle, where the author wasn’t trying to impress me.
“I’m Odile Souchet. Sorry to be late. I was early, and I opened a book . . .” “Reading is dangerous,” Miss Reeder said with a knowing smile. “Let’s go to my office.”
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.
“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.
“We’re bookmates,” she said, in the decisive tone one would assert “the sky is blue,” or “Paris is the best city in the world.” I was skeptical about soul mates, but could believe in bookmates, two beings bound by a passion for reading.
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.
“Why on earth would you want to be a librarian?” he asked, an étincelle, a sparkle, in his eye. “Sometimes I like books more than people.” “Books don’t lie or steal,” he said. “We can depend on them.” I was surprised, and heartened, to hear an echo of my own feelings.
“But seriously, why books. Because no other thing possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people’s eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures.”
“We all have a book that’s changed us forever,” I said. “One that let us know that we’re not alone. What’s yours?”
“Books will outlast us all.”
The Paris Library is very much a character driven story. There is little to no action. Unlike a typical WW2 based historical fiction, we do not see the outright violence and horror of the war or concentration camps. Instead we focus on the loss and devastation that individual people faced on daily basis. We see family members say goodbye to sons/brothers/friends as they leave to fight in the war. We see the women waiting in endless lines for miniscule rations. We see homes left abandoned after Jewish tenants are forced into camps. And, of course, we see the library and the censorship, surveillance, and rules that are forced upon it.
I honestly had never thought about the the impact of the war on libraries. During the Nazi occupation, Jewish and anyone determined to be an “enemy alien” library subscribers were banned from entering the library. However, librarians from the ALP worked together and delivered books to these subscribers at home. Odile is a fictional character, but librarians like her risked everything to make sure that everyone was able to have access to the library. This is just the most beautiful, kind, and courageous act. I can’t imagine how scary it would have been to pass through the Nazi checkpoints while delivering books. But they still did it.
“I decided that words were worth fighting for, that they were worth the risk.”
“Libraries are lungs,” she scrawled, her pen barely able to keep up with her ideas. “Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”
I think Lily perfectly describes how brave and incredible this was . . .
“You were brave,” I told Odile. “Keeping the library open and making sure all people could check out books.” She sighed. “I did the minimum.” “Le minimum? What you did was amazing. You gave subscribers hope. You showed that during the worst of times, people were still good. You saved books and people. You risked your life to defy the fricking Nazis. That’s huge.”
I could not have said it any better.
I highly encourage everyone to read the author’s note at the end of the book. Janet Skeslien Charles did a huge amount of research for this book. So much of The Paris Library is true and/or based in fact and on real people. I love reading author’s notes in historical fiction books because it is so fun to learn where authors get their inspiration from!
The Paris Library is also a story of friendship. There is loss, love, betrayal, and hope. The Paris Library shows the power of a true friend. It beautifully and heartbreakingly illustrates the importance of treasuring that friendship, being open with those you love, and not running away. This is shown through Odile’s relationship with Margaret.
As I said before, The Paris Library is a character driven story. And I came to love so many of these characters! I truly feel like I go to know each and every one of them. It’s like Lily thought after she heard Odile’s story . . .
“Her hand hugging mind, she introduced her cast of characters. Dear Maman and down-to-earth Eugenie. Blustery Papa. Remy, the mischievous twin I would see every time I looked at Odile. His girl, Bitsi, the brave librarian. Paul, so handsome, I fell in love with him, too. Margaret, every bit as fun as Mary Louise. Miss Reader, the Countess, and Boris, the heart and soul and life of the Library. People I would never know, would never forget. They’d lived in Odile’s memory, and now they lived in mine.“
The relationships and friendships between these characters are one of the things that makes The Paris Library so special! Odile’s relationship with Remy, the staff at the ALP, and later with Lily are all beautiful examples of friendship. I love her bond with Remy and the way the staff at the ALP all nerd out about reading. However, my favorite relationship is between Odile and Lily. I love how Lily brings joy and light back into Odile’s life. And how Odile introduces Lily to books and the love of reading. I actually equally enjoyed reading both the Paris and Montana timelines.
As you can see I really enjoyed The Paris Library. I could keep gushing about it for a long time. I wrote down so many quotes that I love! The book mates one is my favorite – I sent it to my book bestie because it describes us perfectly!
I actually struggled writing this review because I don’t feel like I’m able to capture the magic I felt while reading The Paris Library. I think I ended up just ranting, but I can’t help it! The Paris Library actually reminded my of Ruta Sepetys’ books . . . a beautiful story that also teaches me something about a lesser known part of history. This is just a very special book that I think everyone should read. I will hold The Paris Library close to my heart forever.
Congrats to Janet Skeslien Charles on this stunning book!