Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for Ellen Feldman’s new novel, Paris Never Leaves You.
I’ve read a lot of novels about people performing brave, heroic deeds during World War II (most recently Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris), but Paris Never Leaves You is the story of an ordinary woman and the choices and compromises she must make so that she and her toddler daughter can survive. The book opens in the 1950s; Charlotte Foret is living in New York with now-14-year-old Vivi. She works at a publishing house and lives on the top floor of a brownstone belonging to her boss and his wife. For nine years, she’s led a comfortable life, and Vivi is thriving, but the memories of wartime Paris continue to haunt Charlotte.
In flashbacks, we find Charlotte, whose husband was killed in the war, working in a Paris bookshop during the German occupation. It is a time of enormous deprivation, when even queueing for food doesn’t ensure that you’ll get more than a few turnips and a sack of weevil-infested beans. One day, a German soldier walks into the store; he is polite and appears to have good taste in literature, though Charlotte is understandably suspicious of him, wondering if he’s trying to catch her selling banned books so he can have her arrested. (Charlotte’s friend and fellow bookseller Simone is constantly putting works by or about Jews on the shelves, despite the fact that they’re forbidden.)
The soldier becomes a regular customer, and one day, he offers Vivi a fresh orange. He starts clandestinely supplying Charlotte with impossible-to-find luxuries, like cheese and milk. She convinces herself that she needs to accept them, for Vivi’s sake. “She holds her tongue. Except to say thank you. Oh, you’re scrupulous, she chides herself silently. You keep him at arm’s length, except when you reach out to take the food he brings. But she does not argue with herself too vehemently. Vivi’s legs are no longer spindles. She is beginning to have a small belly. She cries, but not incessantly.”
Eventually, their relationship turns sexual, putting Charlotte in further danger; as the war draws to a close, women who consorted with Germans are branded as collabo, and if the mob turns on them, they can sometimes wind up beaten or even killed.
Although she manages to escape France, in many ways, Charlotte has yet to move on from the war, and this has continuing repercussions on her life in New York—she is keeping secrets from her daughter, and has a hard time forming relationships. That’s not too surprising, since during the war, there was always somebody ready to snitch on you, first for defying the occupying Germans and then for not being sufficiently loyal to the French resistance.
Charlotte’s long journey towards self-acceptance and away from shame are at the heart of this compelling story. Feldman writes beautifully about the gray areas that must be navigated when the lines between right and wrong aren’t always clearly defined.