Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, November 17 to discuss The Paris Library by Janet Skeslein Charles. We began our discussion by talking about if any of our members had been to the American Library in Paris, which is where this book takes place. The library has been moved twice since 1939 (when the historical pieces of the book are set), and is currently not located in a convenient part of Paris, but one of our members has visited. She told the group that it was beautiful, but clearly not as well used as other libraries in the community. This is in part because you do have to be a member to visit. There is a great smell of old books. Another reader laughed that The Paris Library did not mention a smell of old books before a different reader realized that when the story takes place, the books weren’t old yet. It’s interesting how quickly our books become old, but our stories remain timeless. We talked a fair amount about how the well of World War II stories never seems to run dry.
Readers agreed that the story was a little melodramatic and sentimental, but that they enjoyed the relationships. The relationship between Lily and Odile, as well as the development of the relationship between Lily and her stepmother.
There were a few devices used by the author that we didn’t quite buy. There were some contrivances, gimmicks, that the author used that we felt were put in place to convenience the author. Instead of a character having a conversation that feels challenging and surprising, some conversations felt like they were scripted people saying exactly the right thing. If you’ve read the book, we’d like to hear your take on Odile’s long-harbored secret “crow” letters. Is it realistic that she kept them for all those years?
Of course, the author needs to do what she needs to do to get her goals achieved. We learned that one goal she had was to advocate for the power of communication, and she was also interested in how books help us see through another person’s point of view. We do think that these goals were achieved because we felt the relationships were some of the strongest elements of the book, and to craft powerful relationships requires putting a lot of empathy on the page.
While there are countless World War II books to choose from, this voracious group of readers is always asking for more, and different and diverse titles. We discussed how we want more writing on the Vietnam war, and how we want more writing on the Asian experience of World War II, and lastly, we want more stories told from the point of view of a country that stood up to occupation during World War II. Each book, we have found, adds to the nuance of the story of the second World War. In this book, we were particularly struck by Nazi decisions surrounding the library.
This book also had the unique element of being split between a 1939 narrative and a 1989 narrative set in Montana. We were split on our feelings about Montana. Some didn’t see the point of that at all, and others enjoyed Montana the most. The author has lived in both Montana and Paris, so both landscapes were able to be crafted from an inside view.
Based on a true story, this moving story is intricately plotted, with well-developed characters and relationships. It will appeal to fans of WWII stories, books about books, and parallel narratives.
Be sure to join us December 15 for our potluck book selection party! Come with book ideas in mind, and snacks/food to share if you would like!
Other authors and titles mentioned:
- The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
- Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
- The Paris Library book club kit (see page 8 for a reading list and page 14 for a playlist)