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The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, Narrated by Nicky Diss, Sarah Feathers and Esther Wane

Published February 9th 2021 by Simon & Schuster Audio, Atria Books

About the Book: Paris, 1939. Odile Souchet is obsessed with books and the Dewey Decimal System, which makes order out of chaos. She soon has it all – a handsome police officer beau, an English best friend, a beloved twin, and a job at the American Library in Paris, a thriving community of students, writers, diplomats, and book lovers. Yet when war is declared, there’s also a war on words.

Montana, 1983. Widowed and alone, Odile suffers the solitary confinement of small-town life. Though most adults are cowed by her, the neighbor girl will not let her be. Lily, a lonely teenager yearning to break free of Froid is obsessed by the older French woman who lives next door and wants to know her secrets.

As the two become friends, Odile sees herself in Lily – the same love of language, the same longings, the same lethal jealousy. The Paris Library’s dual narratives explore the relationships that make us who we are – family and friends, first loves and favorite authors – in the fairy tale setting of the City of Light. It also explores the geography of resentment, the consequences of unspeakable betrayal, and what happens when the people we count on for understanding and protection fail us.

The wit, empathy, and deep research that brings The Paris Library to life also brings to light a cast of lively historical characters and a little-known chapter of World War II history: the story of the American librarian, Miss Reeder, who created the Soldiers’ Service to deliver books to servicemen, and who later faced the Nazi ‘Book Protector’ in order to keep her library open. She and her colleagues defied the Bibliotheksschutz by delivering books to Jewish readers after they were forbidden from entering the library. 

The Paris Library

4 Stars: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I do enjoy historical fiction, especially stories based on real people and/or actual events, this had both. I had not heard of The American Library in Paris before. I enjoyed learning about it and how the patrons were ex-pats, professors, students and everyday persons who wanted to read books in English for enjoyment and research. I also knew that the Nazis had pillaged libraries in the countries that they had occupied, but to read how these women had worked so hard to keep this library functioning and the books safe was uplifting and inspiring.

This is a dual timeline book, one in Paris during the years of WWII, the second in Montana in 1983. I normally prefer one timeline or story more than the other and that is definitely the case here. I enjoyed Odile’s story of her life and struggles during the war. It was fascinating as well as very sad to read about the plight of the women who ran and worked in the library. There is subterfuge, secrets, some romance and some horror as there is in most stories of this time. The second story has a much older Odile being befriended by a lonely teenager, Lily. Odile is a recluse and keeps to herself, but Lily wants to interview her for a school project and they develop a relationship. It is through these meetings that we are learn about Odile’s story. Lily’s mother has died and her father is getting remarried. Once they have children together, will Lily be forgotten? Odile and Lily form a very unlikely friendship and through books, they open up to one another and Odile reconciles her past.

This is more of a character driven story than a war story. The resistance was not about blowing things up and killing the enemy, but bringing books, thus knowledge and light to the Jewish patrons of the library, under the guise of a soldier reading program. It was wonderful to read about these courageous librarians, fighting the good fight through books, knowingly resisting the Nazis, aware they faced death and prison if discovered. This might not seem like much compared to the other resistance efforts, but any hope given to the people, especially those in hiding, was a light for them. The author did a great deal of research for the book, which she talks about in the author’s note at the end, make sure you read it to complete the story. I did a bit of research on my own after reading this book (I love when a book motivates me to do that) and it was quite interesting. In the novel, Dorothy Reeder, the director of the Library, was the actual director of the ALP from 1936-1941. This was a WWII story, but the themes of loss, betrayal, hope, friendship, and the power of books shine through.

I did a read/listen with this book. Parts of the story dragged a bit for me and at those times, I needed to read the story rather than listen to it. I found it easy to drift off and then had to back and reread. I enjoyed the narration by Nicky Diss, Sarah Feathers and Esther Wane. They gave distinct voices to the various characters, but there were a lot of them, which sometimes made it a bit confusing to listen to. Overall, an enjoyable and enlightening story, which I personally preferred to read rather than listen too. I received a copy of this book upon request. The rating and opinions shared are my own.