Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday, December 11, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Paris Library

Atria Books: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Atria Books: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles Atria Books: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles Atria Books: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The Paris Library

by Janet Skeslien Charles

Fresh out of library school, Odile Souchet is thrilled to land a job at the American Library in Paris. Intelligent and ambitious, she has a deep love for the Dewey Decimal System, and thinks of the numbers constantly: " 'How would Dewey classify this lunch?' Rémy asked. 'That's easy--841. A Season in Hell.' " Odile is immediately enamored of her new workplace and its cadre of international borrowers and researchers. She comes to know and admire her fellow staff members, especially Miss Reeder, the library's sharply intelligent, imposing directress. But as the shadow of Nazi occupation looms ever larger over Paris, Odile and her new compatriots--not to mention the books they love--are inevitably caught up in the darkness.

In her second novel, The Paris Library, Janet Skeslien Charles (Moonlight in Odessa) weaves Odile's story together with that of 14-year-old Lily Jacobsen, growing up in Montana in the mid-1980s. Reeling from the loss of her mother and her father's remarriage, Lily finds herself adrift: overlooked at school, out of place at home. Intrigued by her reclusive elderly neighbor, Lily talks her way into Odile's house and begins asking questions. Though Odile, now a widow, has long been used to solitude, she and Lily strike up a friendship that flourishes with their French lessons and their shared love of the books in Odile's personal library. The connection between the two, as different as they are, will touch them both in a deep way.

On the surface, Odile and Lily--not to mention their respective historical moments--seem quite different. Odile, both in her younger and older incarnations, is elegant and dryly witty; Lily struggles with teenage awkwardness and has trouble articulating her emotions. But both regularly deal with jealousy and comparing themselves to others: in Paris, Odile envies her friend Margaret's elegant gowns and feels threatened by the affection her brother, Rémy, shows to his sweetheart, Bitsi, who is one of Odile's fellow librarians. Lily is intimidated by queen bee Tiffany, who always has the latest fashionable clothes and makes cutting remarks, and she fears being left behind by her best friend, Mary Louise, who is discovering boys. By the time Odile meets Lily, she is able to explain a bit about the corrosive nature of jealousy--but Odile is also hiding a secret, the revelation of which will force Lily to rethink what she has come to believe about her new friend.

Charles's narrative shifts back and forth between Paris and Montana, bringing in Odile's perspective as well as that of of her friend Margaret, a lonely Englishwoman who seeks out the library as a place of refuge and friendship. The library is full of other vivid characters, including two elderly gentlemen--one French, one English--who regularly spar over the contents of the daily newspapers, but harbor a deep respect for one another. When the Nazis begin eyeing the library's collections as potential acquisitions, Odile and Margaret, along with their colleagues, begin sending books to soldiers at the front and making plans to keep other materials safe from the occupying army. Even as the net tightens on the people of Paris, Miss Reeder and several other librarians, including Odile, refuse to leave. Her colleagues' quiet heroism makes a deep impression on Odile, and, nearly four decades later, on Lily.

Both narrative strands dig under the surface of events to explore things left unsaid. Odile's brother, Rémy, sends letters from his prisoner-of-war camp, and she is able to send letters back, but they both leave certain information out so as not to worry each other. Odile and her parents barely discuss Rémy's situation, though all of them are worried about him. Odile's beau, Paul, a young policeman who works with her father, is increasingly troubled about what he sees on the job, but feels caught between his duty to the police department, his affection for Odile and the increasingly brutal treatment of Parisians by the occupiers. Margaret, the isolated wife of a diplomat, struggles to express the range of emotions she feels at being far from home and not quite fitting in anywhere.

In the Montana narrative, Lily has only a vague comprehension of the Cold War and political events, but she understands that faraway foreign policies do have an effect on her life. Closer to home, she and Ellie, her father's new wife, tiptoe around one another, neither quite sure how to bridge the awkwardness created by Ellie's presence and her mother's absence. And although Lily and Odile are able to communicate directly on some topics, they, too, are sometimes unable to say what they feel or ask the questions they harbor. Charles treats her characters with deep compassion, but all of them are eventually forced to face the consequences of their actions, and do what they can to move forward with grace.

A love letter to libraries, a testament to courage under fire and an honest exploration of complex friendships, The Paris Library is a treat for book lovers, Francophiles and anyone whose life has been changed by a dear friend. --Katie Noah Gibson

Atria, $28, hardcover, 368p., 9781982134198, June 2, 2020

Atria Books: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Janet Skeslien Charles: Breaking Down Barriers Through Books

(photo: Richard Bebani)

Janet Skeslien Charles is the author of the award-winning novel Moonlight in Odessa and the forthcoming The Paris Library (Atria, June 2020). Her shorter work has appeared in Slice magazine, Montana Noir and elsewhere. Charles learned about the history of the American Library in Paris while working there as the programs manager. She divides her time between Montana and Paris.

Tell us about the inspiration for The Paris Library.

I used to work as the programs manager for the American Library in Paris. The library has 60 different nationalities among the members--25% of them are French. It's very international, and you have a lot of different paths that cross. You have billionaires, students, trailing spouses, journalists, writers... all sorts. When I worked there, one of my colleagues told me about Miss Reeder, the director of the library during World War II. I really appreciated her story because she was so brave. All the other library trustees were male and they went back to the States right away when the Nazis invaded, but Miss Reeder and the Countess [Clara Longworth de Chambrun] stayed on. There's actually a top-secret report--which is available online now--where Miss Reeder talks about staying in Paris.

How did you balance writing the novel with working at the library?

I couldn't really start writing the story until I didn't work at the library anymore--there's so much to do! People work really hard behind the scenes to make sure things run smoothly. We had two or three evening events per week. I would look to see which French publishers were bringing over American authors and ask if I could have a few hours of their time while they were here.

I based Odile, my main character, on a bookseller I really loved. She had a shop called the Village Voice Bookshop on the Rue Princesse. She became a bookseller when she was 40 and retired when she was 70, and she was just wonderful.

Odile has a deep love for the Dewey Decimal System, which spills over into the rest of her life.

I think it's hard sometimes when you're in a family that doesn't know how to communicate. The Dewey Decimal System became an outlet for Odile. She couldn't really communicate with her parents; it was a way for her to think about things, categorize things, process things.

The library is full of other vivid characters, including Margaret, a British expat who becomes Odile's friend.

Margaret was my favorite character to write. I enjoyed exploring her story: feeling like an outsider in Paris, not knowing where to go, not understanding the language. Phone calls must have been very expensive then, and Margaret wasn't much of a letter writer. I think she was very lonely, and then she had the experience of arriving at the library and feeling at home. That's what the library does for a lot of people: provides a place of solace and a place to find like-minded people. I hope that this book might encourage people to go back to their libraries.

The novel's other narrative is set in Montana in the 1980s, and connects Odile with her teenage neighbor, Lily.

As Odile and Lily open up to each other, Odile tells Lily about all these people from her past and they also become part of Lily. We keep the past alive that way: our people help us become who we are. It's important to have both Odile and Lily, because they really help each other. They're both going through a hard time. Lily is so lucky to have Odile in her life, but you eventually realize that Odile is also lucky to have Lily. Teenagers can be insightful--they have their challenging moments, but sometimes they can be more lucid than adults.

We learn eventually that Odile came to Montana as a war bride, and struggled with isolation in her small town.

I did a lot of research on war brides. Often, when they arrived in the States, the inhabitants of the town would be really angry at them for stealing one of their young men. They would call their mothers-in-law "Mrs. Smith" (or Jones, etc.) instead of using first names--they wouldn't have an informal relationship with them. I went to the Montana Historical Society and read transcripts of interviews with war brides from different conflicts: World War II, the Korean War. Women who ended up in bigger cities had opportunities for jobs, and perhaps had compatriots. But women like Odile were all alone.

Jealousy is a real theme in the novel--a struggle for both Lily and Odile. How did this become such an important thread?

I think jealousy is a struggle in society, especially today. With social media, people post their ideal lives and other people see those ideal lives. It is very challenging to take a step back and realize that an idealized life is not exactly a life. These pictures are one-dimensional and don't always represent the whole story. Jealousy can be so corrosive--for example, it's a pity that Odile didn't really appreciate what she had in her friendship with Margaret. In the end, I think Odile understands what friendship is.

How else do the novel's two narratives echo one another?

I tried to draw parallels between the Cold War and the beginning of World War II. In both cases, there was this ominous feeling for a long time and people didn't know what was going to happen. I think about the present, and the Cold War, too: Reagan telling Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," and now we're building walls.

We have everything we need to tear down walls and break down barriers, and that's what I hope this book will do. --Katie Noah Gibson

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