The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

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