One might wonder if anything new can be written about Paris, but Janet Skeslien Charles reminds us of the city’s evergreen appeal and unbounded potential for stories with The Paris Library, which tells of the very real, very beloved American Library in Paris and the role it played during World War II.
The year is 1939, and Odile Souchet is nervously reciting the Dewey Decimal System as she prepares for a job interview at the American Library. It’s not common for young ladies of her class to get jobs, but Odile is in love with books as if they were walking, breathing bodies, and she wants nothing more than to be a librarian at a place she has loved since her childhood. It’s no surprise to the reader when she lands the job.
The comfort and whimsy that young Odile once experienced at the American Library are still very much alive. However, everything changes when the Germans occupy Paris and threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. Together with the rest of the staff, Odile joins the resistance, delivering books to Jewish readers banned from entering the library. When the war eventually ends, instead of rejoicing, Odile learns of betrayals that make it impossible for her to remain in the city she loves or to work in a place she had come to know as her sanctuary.
The book skips ahead to 1983 Montana, where we find Odile living alone. In all these years of calling a small American town her home, she hasn’t managed to shake off the mystery surrounding her. When a school assignment connects a lonely and curious teenage girl named Lily with Odile, a friendship is forged, and the two slowly confront the consequences of present and past choices.
What makes The Paris Library such a tender read is Charles’ firsthand experience at the American Library, where she was the programs manager. This is where she first discovered the stories of the brave librarians who fought the Germans with nothing more than books. Her meticulous research brings these figures to life with Odile as their narrator. Furthermore, Charles’ Montana roots help shine light on the small-town life that Lily can’t wait to escape. Together the two storylines provide wonderful insight into relationships and friendships that transcend time and place.