The Paris Library: Half of a Superb Novel



By Janet Skeslien Charles

Simon and Schuster, 368 pages.





The Paris Library was the best seller, but is it a great novel? In my estimation, it is half of a very good one.


I mean this literally. Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel takes place in two different time periods: Paris in 1939–40, and Montana in 1983. You perhaps associate the first dates as the outbreak of World War II and the year of France fell to the Nazis. You probably don't associate 1983 in Montana with anything at all, though that's not necessarily a problem. It does, however, make for a force fit when Charles attempts to link the two periods.


The action revolves around Odile Souchet, a young French woman with a head for numbers and a good command of English–good qualifications for working at the American Library in Paris at a time in which shelf classification was done by the Dewey Decimal System. One of the first questions many readers wish to know is whether such a thing as the American Library actually existed. Yes, and it still does, though 1939 wasn't the best time to begin a career there. Odile, though, yearns for independence and experience, and her job at the library is arguably safer than that of her twin brother Rémy who joins the French army, or those of her boyfriend Paul or her father. Paul is a policeman and Odile’s father is the chief of his police prefect. We meet the library’s fascinating and eccentric staff and clientele, including directress Dorothy Reeder; Boris Netchaff, a Russian who works at the circulation desk; Helen, a reference librarian; Peter, a bookshelver; and researchers the likes of Professor Cohen, Mr. Pryce-Jones, an Englishmen; and several women of noble or upper bourgeois standing. All will be in jeopardy when the Nazis capture Paris in June 1940.


Much about the library is "based on a true story," a phrase that means the broad strokes occurred but most of the details are imagined. American libraries existed across Europe and tried to stay open when hostilities broke out, a situation easier to manage until late 1941, as the United States was not yet at war with Germany. It was also the case that, in some instances, Nazi commanders of a literary bent sought to protect American libraries and their collections–until they no longer could.


The travails of Odile and her colleagues are by far the most engaging part of the novel. War changes those like or Odile who managed to survive. She will not be a librarian when the war ends and, through various circumstances, she loses her social mentor Margaret, an ambassador's wife; her boyfriend Paul; and several family members. She will also gain an American husband, Buck.


Buck is the Montana connection, though Odile is a widow in 1983. She is living in Froid, Montana, a real place that had a population of around 300 people in 1983. You might also recognize its name as French for “cold,” which it certainly is for Odile. She's the resident oddball, a sophisticate among the hayseeds. Montana advances Charles’ attempt at a circular tale, as Odile will act as a mentor to teenaged Lily Jacobsen, a banker's daughter whose mother has died. Lily is as much at sea on the ranch as Odile was in her own family, plus Lily is at the awkward age in which she has a school* tormentor who also happens to be her rival for the boy she likes. Among the ways Lily seeks to become different is through an interest in French language and culture. Odile will be her guide, until that role abruptly ends.


There are various acts of betrayal in The Paris Library, each of which is plausible, though they sometimes smack of contrivance. I was left wondering why Charles bothered with the Montana part of the novel at all, aside from wishing to show older women mentoring younger ones. I am an advocate of mentoring, but The Paris Library suffers from trying to do too much and gives short shrift to Lilly's development. This necessitates a few illogical leaps. As many do when writing love letters to libraries, Charles also occasionally ascribes too much power to the written word.


More seriously, to make the two halves meld, Charles resorts to unconvincing histrionics that cheapen Odile’s saga, which would have been a gripping and compelling on its own. The Paris Library is a good read, but were I the editor, I would have advised centering the book on Odile and would have left Lily in Montana to grow up on her own.


Rob Weir


* Lily’s school days might be an inside joke on Charles’ part. The only time Froid made the news was in 2007, when it had a graduating class of one!

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