Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles is a novel book lovers and fans of compelling fiction set in World War II Paris will love. It begins in February 1939 when Odile Souchet, having recently completed her library degree, applies for a job at the American Library in Paris (ALP). Odile has an interview with Dorothy Reeder, a character based on the real Miss Reeder, the library’s director, a remarkable woman whose work contributed to the war effort and to elevating women and books. After their conversation, Odile pens a note:

“Dear Miss Reeder,

Thank you for discussing the job with me. I was thrilled to be interviewed. This library means more to me than any place in Paris. When I was little, my aunt Caroline took me to Story Hour. It’s thanks to her that I studied English and fell in love with the Library. Though my aunt is no longer with us, I continue to see her at the ALP.  I open books and turn to their pockets in the back, hoping to see her name on the card. Reading the same novels as she did makes me feel like we’re still close.

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 library hires Odile and she adores her job where she becomes friends with Margaret, a British volunteer, and many of the library’s patrons based on actual historical figures. Odile falls In love with Paul, a kind police officer, which helps her when her beloved twin brother is captured by the Germans.

Once the Germans occupy Paris, the library’s Jewish patrons are no longer allowed to visit so Odile deliver books to them. Odile joins the Resistance and her actions are both enlightening and treacherous. Odile, Margaret, and others face repercussions and betrayal.  


The library also helps ship books to soldiers.  It’s fascinating to note that between September 1939 and May 1940, the “Soldiers Service” supplied more than 100,000 books to English and French soldiers including those in the French Foreign Legion.

The novel also features an interwoven narrative featuring Lily, a girl living in Froid, Montana in 1983, who describes her neighbor:

“Her name was Mrs. Gustafson and she lived next door. Behind her back, folks called her the War Bride, but she didn’t look like a bride to me. First of all, she never wore white. And she was old. Way older than my parents. Everyone knows a bride needs a groom, but her husband was long dead, 

She wasn’t like the other ladies in Froid. They were plump like wrens, and their lumpy sweaters and boring shoes came in dowdy grays. The other ladies wore curlers to the grocery store, but Mrs. Gustafson donned her Sunday best —- a pleated skirt and high heels —- just to take out the trash. A red belt showed off her waist. Always, she wore bright lipstick, even in church.”

When Lily’s mother becomes ill, Odile Gustafson becomes the friend Lily needs. Their relationship builds and the reader begins to piece together the arc of Odile’s life since 1944. Odile and Lily’s relationship offers a way for both to manage their difficulties.

Summing it Up: The Paris Library is an lovely novel evocative of war, love, sacrifice, and betrayal. It’s a love letter to books and Paris — a true Francophile and bibliophile treat. It’s just what readers need in a pandemic year. The author worked at the American Library in Paris in 2010 and her love for the library is contagious. 

The Paris Library is the #1 Indie Next Pick Great Reads Pick for February 2021 as selected by independent booksellers.

Rating: 5 Stars

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

Author Website: https://www.jskesliencharles.com/ 

Reading Group Guide and Complete Book Club Kit: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5dee27076290e80dd6fa1974/t/602108a3fb20424c24db27cc/1612777646233/ParisLibrary_BookClubKit.pdf 

The Story Behind the Book:  https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=author-janet-skeslien-charles-shares-the-story-behind-the-paris-library 

What Others Are Saying:

BookPage: https://bookpage.com/reviews/25877-janet-skeslien-charles-paris-library-fiction#.YCGyyIFOKf0 

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/janet-skeslien-charles/the-paris-library/

Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-9821-3419-8

“A love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship.” ― Booklist