The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles Simon & Schuster HC $28.00 – 9781982134198 2/2/2021
There is a special pleasure in reading books about books, books about words, books about reading. The same joy derives from characters who have a love of words and print and they find the path to our hearts an open one. I am put in mind of the JoJo Moyes title Giver of Stars, the story of itinerant horseback librarians in depression era Appalachia. In both books a dedicated cadre of book lovers not only strives to assure that their patrons are supplied with the books they crave, but they put themselves at considerable risk to do so. At root is the love of reading and compulsion to impart that love to others. It is a noble cause and those who engage in it are imbued with that nobility. How reading functions as a lifeblood, therapy and escape is a subject of exploration here and the larger themes of friendship, loyalty, guilt and betrayal are on full display.
With an easy-flowing prose style the author guides us through the German occupation of Paris in WWII and the women and men whose mission it is to keep open the American Library of Paris. In alternating chapters we see the coming of age emergence of a youthful French librarian and a young woman in 1980s Montana struggling with identity, loss, and jealousy. Both Odile, the young Parisian and Lily, the American teenager are given to impetuous outbursts, honest but undiplomatic. They are ruled by strong emotions barely kept in check and frequently regretted, but sincere and benevolent at root. These two find truth in self-examination and the willingness to absorb the wisdom of others. They are charming, naïve, strong willed and thoroughly likeable.
There are some engaging devices used in the narrative that add piquancy to the tale. Odile is steeped in the Dewey Decimal System and refers to life occurrences according to their classification. Fiction, geography, cooking, each have their designations which are salted into the text and add a charming flavor. The intriguing play of language differences, cognates and root words, how the character of a tongue defines the nationality of the speaker, and the deep emotional attachments to one’s native speech are interspersed in the relationships and conflicts between parent and child, the French and the Germans and also among fast friends. Both the learning of a new tongue and the cultural differences encountered are a part of the charm. The reality of living under occupation also contributes to the atmosphere.
Based on real events, this fictional account is an enchanting reading experience and one that avid readers and lovers of the printed word will find irresistible. I recommend it with enthusiasm.
Shelf Talker: The heroic efforts of a small group of French librarians to resist the closing of the American Library of Paris during WWII is contrasted with a coming of age tale of a Montana girl in the 1980s and tied together with themes of friendship, loyalty, guilt and betrayal. A satisfying and substantial read.