The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

Being a teenager sucks. I certainly wasn’t fond of it. Like Lily, one of the protagonists of Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel The Paris Library, I was annoyed by my friends, irritated by well-meant advice from adults, and couldn’t wait to be grown up and independent. Lily and I even grew up in the intermountain west in towns that people leave in droves. The similarities end there because Lily is a massive francophile who lost her mother at a critical age. Thankfully, Lily has Odile Souchet to guide her through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. She provides Lily with desperately needed perspective in that she can provide real examples of the consequences of jealousy, petty revenge, and all of our ugly little emotions—because Odile came of age during a world war, when the stakes were a lot higher than a broken heart.

The Paris Library flips back and forth from World War II to the mid-1980s. Lily’s narrative, set in the 80s, shows Lily growing close to Odile through impromptu French lessons and some substitute mothering. Her friendship with Odile helps Lily find her self-confidence while contending with loss, an absent father, and a surprisingly fertile stepmother who is a scant ten years older than Lily. The other narrative, Odile’s, is based on the author’s own interest and curiosity in the American Library in Paris. The library and some of its real-life staff form part of the cast of The Paris Library.

An undated photo of the American Library (Image via Wikicommons)

I’m not going to lie. Odile’s story was more interesting to me than Lily’s. In 1939, Odile lived a charmed life in Paris. Sure, her parents were overbearing and her father keeps bringing home potential suitors from the police station (he’s a commissaire), but her library degree and love of reading* help her achieve her dream job at the American Library. She even manages to meet a cute young policeman who helps her stand up to her very traditional father. Even the War, at least during the first few months, doesn’t really touch Odile. When France is occupied and Paris fills up with Nazis, Odile does her small bit to fight back: she helps deliver books to library patrons who are no longer allowed to go into public spaces such as Jewish people and foreigners from countries the Nazis are at war with.

It’s only in the last third or so of The Paris Library that my big question–how on earth did a Parisienne end up in rural Montana?—started to be answered. Lily commits a big sin. She snoops around in Odile’s things while she is away, and discovers old letters that Lily immediately misinterprets. And thus, lessons are (eventually) learned about forgiveness and how to avoid impulsive bad ideas.

I found a few missteps in The Paris Library, but they’re just small things about being a librarian. I only saw them because I work in a library and with librarians all the time (see note). Otherwise, I found this book to be a solid tale about very human people who, for whatever reason, have to learn that there are costs to be paid when we act in the heat of the moment. Odile pays a very high price. Lily gets off lightly in comparison. Because of its characters and subject matter, I think The Paris Library would be fantastic reading for parents of teenage daughters who don’t mind stepping into the perspective of a teenager and a very young woman for 400 pages. This book is a very good reminder of just how much it sucks to be a teenager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

* There’s an inside joke among librarians that you shouldn’t say that you want to be a librarian because you want to read. First, we all love to read so we just assume this about anyone who applies. Second, actually being a librarian is more about people than it is about books—but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

1 Comment

  1. As I was reading your synopsis I was puzzling what the connection was between Paris and Montana. Yiu couldn’t get more of a contrast in cultures..
    Had a chuckle about the librarians in joke. I bet the people on interview panels grown every time they hear that statement about what someone wants to be a librarian.


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