“Paris Never Leaves You” by Ellen Feldman

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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.

Paris Never Leaves YouI’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.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.