The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Two Roads| 9th February 2021| 369 pages| Review copy| 3*

Before I read the summary of the book the title led me to think this was about the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, located in Paris. It’s not, it’s about the American Library in Paris.

PARIS, 1939
Odile Souchet is obsessed with books, and her new job at the American Library in Paris – with its thriving community of students, writers and book lovers – is a dream come true. When war is declared, the Library is determined to remain open. But then the Nazis invade Paris, and everything changes.
In Occupied Paris, choices as black and white as the words on a page become a murky shade of grey – choices that will put many on the wrong side of history, and the consequences of which will echo for decades to come.

MONTANA, 1983
Lily is a lonely teenager desperate to escape small-town Montana. She grows close to her neighbour Odile, discovering they share the same love of language, the same longings. But as Lily uncovers more about Odile’s mysterious past, she discovers a dark secret, closely guarded and long hidden.

As an ex-librarian I had high hopes that I would love The Paris Library. It’s historical fiction, based on the true Second World War story of the librarians at the American Library in Paris. It was established in 1920 by the American Library Association with books and periodicals donated by American libraries to US soldiers serving their allies in World War I. Since then it has developed into the largest English language lending library in Europe.

I liked the details about the Library, and about the work the library staff did during the War, including delivering books by hand to their Jewish subscribers in Paris after they were not allowed to enter the Library.

Charles’ helpful Author’s Note gives a fascinating insight into the background to the novel and explains that she had spent several years researching it. She had worked in the American Library in 2010 and her colleagues had told her the story of the Library during the Second World War and had given her access to documents, correspondence and contacts. She met with some of the staff who had worked there and was able to bring their stories up to date. Odile and Lily are both fictional characters.

Although I enjoyed the factual elements of the novel and the wartime storyline, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I was disappointed with the fictional stories, in particular Lily’s story in Montana in the 1980s. I really didn’t see the point of introducing her character simply to show what happened to Odile after the end of the War. Her story took the novel into the genres of YA and romantic fiction, neither of which hold much appeal for me. Overall I thought it was slow going and towards the end of the book my interest flagged making it a struggle to finish it.

With thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers, Two Roads for my review copy.

3 thoughts on “The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

  1. So sorry to hear this one didn’t do it for you, Margaret. It had so much much promise, too! I love books about libraries, and, like you, I enjoy historical novels. Shame that this one didn’t keep your interest better.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for such an honest review. I am a librarian and it is hard to read fiction about libraries and librarians when done well, but the dual timeline thing has been done to death. Your points about making it YA-like are very good ones. I hope the publisher takes note.

    Liked by 1 person

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