April Book Review: 'The Paris Library'

Apr 13, 2021

If you can spend hours in  little bookstores, often prefer a good book to a live person, love the way books smell, and seek out libraries when you’re on vacation, this book is for you. Coming up next, listen to Kirsten Nilsson, Summit County Library’s Children’s Librarian, review the compelling historical novel The Paris Library.

Historical fiction fans often encounter novels of staggeringly heroic WWII rescue efforts—of people helping children escape across borders, people creating fake documents to evade the Gestapo, and others hiding in basements and attics and barns.

Sometimes, these ordinary people, doing what they can, can be found in the quietest places—like a library.

Janet Skeslien Charles’s latest novel, The Paris Library, introduces us to Frenchwoman Odile Souchet. She loves everything about books and libraries. She’s memorized the Dewey Decimal system. She even loves the way books smell.

In 1939, Odile’s life is practically perfect. She has landed her dream job at the American Library in Paris and she’s met a charming French police officer. When the Nazis march in and occupy Paris, however, everything changes for Odile.

Libraries are targeted for banned books and given lists so they can cull the stacks of offensive materials. Jews are forbidden entry, and some libraries are closed. But the American Library in Paris is determined to stay open and continues to arrange delivery to people no longer allowed inside as well as sending away targeted reading materials instead of destroying them.

During the coming years, tragic events impact Odile’s life: the imprisonment of her twin brother, the internment of a beloved library mentor, and, at the end of the war, she learns of a devastating betrayal that makes it impossible for her to stay in France. She marries an American soldier and moves to Montana, where she lives many lonely years as an outsider.

In 1983, writing a report about France, thirteen-year-old Lily knocks on her reclusive neighbor’s door. She’s curious about Odile’s life and why she left France, but Odile rarely speaks of her past. Over the next few years, a friendship is forged. Together, Odile and Lily slowly confront the consequences of past and present choices.

The novel wonderfully weaves together 1940s WWII Paris and 1980s small-town Montana. It’s fascinating to see Odile’s WWII struggle in Paris up close, through her own terrifying experiences, as well as Lily’s farsighted view, what she’s learned in history class. As readers, we see the war with both a short and a long lens—history lived and subsequently cleaned up a little and viewed from decades in the future.

This is an extraordinary story of love, sacrifice, betrayal, and forgiveness for both Odile and Lily. It explores emotional realities through a love of the written word, through the deeply human need for books and stories. Together the two storylines provide wonderful insight into relationships and friendships that transcend time and place. Most importantly, the novel helps us see that things are often not what they seem. And, it’s a beautiful blend of fact and fiction.

The author, Janet Skeslien Charles, worked at the American Library in Paris as a programs manager in 2010. This is where she first discovered the stories of the brave librarians who fought the Germans the only way they could, with nothing more than books.

Kirkus reviews says, this is “a novel tailor-made for those who love books and libraries.”

And, appropriately, you can find The Paris Library on the shelves at both the Park City Library and the Summit County Library. This is Kirsten Nilsson, historical fiction fanatic, and children’s librarian at the Summit County Library.