“The Paris Library” marks Janet Skeslien Charles’s second novel of her writing career. Based upon her own experiences working at the American Library in Paris and growing up in rural Montana, Charles tells the story of “The Paris Library” with two distinct threads. One follows Odile Souchet, a new librarian at the American Library in Paris on the brink of World War II. The other is set nearly four decades later, following Lily Jacobsen, a teenage girl from Froid, Mont., who is intrigued by her Parisian neighbor and intent on unveiling Odile’s past.
Charles establishes an interesting premise with the dual narrative. While we are first exposed to young Odile’s charming character and riveting background, Charles subsequently gives us glimpses of Odile in her old age, changed from the person we were first introduced to. Charles describes old Odile: “Though she spoke two languages fluently, for the most part, she didn’t talk to anyone,” contrasting the vivid persona Charles had crafted of young Odile only a chapter prior.
From Lily’s perspective, it is insinuated that Odile faced several hardships and tragedies living in occupied Paris long before the reader learns about them first-hand through Odile’s perspective. Charles makes the reader conscious of Odile’s tense familial and romantic relationships. Her father is a police chief forced to work under the Nazi direction; her brother, dedicated to justice, joins the army despite physical unfitness. Her beau, Paul, also a police officer, wrestles with his instructions under Nazi rule. Meanwhile, Odile herself is forced to reckon with Nazi occupation as she begins work at the American Library in Paris.
Odile’s experiences working with staff and library subscribers, and her later fight to keep the library open and the Jewish subscribers safe, are based on Charles’s research experience at the same library. Charles worked there as a program manager, where she also conducted years of research on the occupation of Paris with specific focus on the American Library’s history and the notable people integral to it’s defense.
In her novel, Charles transforms the Library’s historical defenders into characters. In an interview with the Library Journal, Charles states that “Miss Reeder, the Countess of Ohio, and Boris are the heart, soul and life of the Library. I hope that you’ll enjoy reading about these courageous librarians as much as I enjoyed researching them.”
These real historical figures become fast friends with Odile in the face of terror and tragedy, while maintaining historic truths: “Since Jewish members could no longer come to the Library, the Library went to them. Miss Reeder and her colleagues disobeyed the Nazis and hand-delivered books to Jewish members.”
Charles’s meticulous research enables vivid descriptions, complex characters and enticing relationships to prosper in Odile’s chapters. However, her research failed to elevate Lily’s chapters to the same extent. Lacking the excitement and history of Odile’s storyline, Lily’s storyline was vague and dull. I couldn’t quite grasp the significance of her storyline, her character or her nonsensical actions. It seems that Charles didn’t either — Lily’s sections are undermined by a sense of haste, rushing through irrelevant plot lines that weaken her character development.
Though there were some moments shared between Lily and the old, present day Odile, they were infrequent and mostly consisted of French language lessons rather than substantial conversations about Odile’s past and the occupation of Paris — the driving force behind this work of historical fiction. Instead, family drama in Lily’s life distracted from the historical significance of Odile’s sections and detracted from the larger and more interesting story at hand.
Having read other works of historical fiction that employ intersecting narratives to speak on the German occupation, I was let down by Charles’s attempts to unite these characters in their respective times and locations. Other works, like the epistolary novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” take character dynamics and explore them with intricacy, depth and authenticity. In this light, the characters gave nuance to the story without compromising the historical perspective.
“The Paris Library” would have been stronger without the feckless interruptions of Lily’s chapters, so Odile’s story could have shone with more attention under Charles’s historical fiction lens. Perhaps centering the story solely on Odile would have provided more opportunities to discuss the Nazi occupation, the most compelling parts of the novel. Charles has a talent for weaving the dramatic aspects of fiction with the factual history, which I wish I had seen more of. For instance, when the librarians disobey orders and deliver books to their Jewish subscribers, the author not only invokes the historical nature of these actions, but explores the dynamic between the librarian and the subscriber by exposing and breaking the barriers between them.
Charles writes: “The professor’s expression, unguarded, was filled with an immense sorrow. How odd to see this internal landscape—the inside of an apartment, the inside of a life. To enter a subscriber’s home and see things meant to remain private. I didn’t know what to say. Neither did she. In the end, it was the author who found the words. ‘Thank you for bringing the books. I must get back to my novel.’ ”
Similar meaningful instances were rare in Lily’s chapters, where the language was stale by comparison. The lack of substance hindered the otherwise fascinating affairs in Odile’s chapters and threatened their ability to captivate. Although Lily’s chapters grow more infrequent as Odile’s take over, the final ending that centers on Lily fails in its attempt to bring the novel to a fulfilling close.
After following the trajectory of Odile’s tragic and intense life in Paris during the occupation, it was disheartening to end on a character so opposite to the determined and riveting Odile.
Daily Arts Writer Lilly Pearce can be reached at email@example.com.