Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet seems to have the perfect life with her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into the city, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.
“A love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship” (Booklist), The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest places.
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Chapter 1: Odile CHAPTER 1 Odile
PARIS, FEBRUARY 1939
NUMBERS FLOATED ROUND my head like stars. 823. The numbers were the key to a new life. 822. Constellations of hope. 841. In my bedroom late at night, in the morning on the way to get croissants, series after series—810, 840, 890—formed in front of my eyes. They represented freedom, the future. Along with the numbers, I’d studied the history of libraries, going back to the 1500s. In England, while Henry VIII was busy chopping off his wives’ heads, our King François was modernizing his library, which he opened to scholars. His royal collection was the beginning of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Now, at the desk in my bedroom, I prepared for my job interview at the American Library, reviewing my notes one last time: founded in 1920; the first in Paris to let the public into the stacks; subscribers from more than thirty countries, one-fourth of them from France. I held fast to these facts and figures, hoping they’d make me appear qualified to the Directress.
I strode from my family’s apartment on the sooty rue de Rome, across from the Saint-Lazare train station, where locomotives coughed up smoke. The wind whipped my hair, and I tucked tendrils under my tam hat. In the distance, I could see the ebony dome of Saint-Augustin church. Religion, 200. Old Testament, 221. And the New Testament? I waited, but the number wouldn’t come. I was so nervous that I forgot simple facts. I drew my notebook from my purse. Ah, yes, 225. I knew that.
My favorite part of library school had been the Dewey Decimal system. Conceived in 1873 by the American librarian Melvil Dewey, it used ten classes to organize library books on shelves based on subject. There was a number for everything, allowing any reader to find any book in any library. For example, Maman took pride in her 648 (housekeeping). Papa wouldn’t admit it, but he really did enjoy 785 (chamber music). My twin brother was more of a 636.8 person, while I preferred 636.7. (Cats and dogs, respectively.)
I arrived on le grand boulevard, where in the space of a block, the city shrugged off her working-class mantle and donned a mink coat. The coarse smell of coal dissipated, replaced by the honeyed jasmine of Joy, worn by women delighting in the window display of Nina Ricci’s dresses and Kislav green leather gloves. Farther along, I wound around musicians exiting the shop that sold wrinkled sheet music, past the baroque building with the blue door, and turned the corner, onto a narrow side street. I knew the way by heart.
I loved Paris, a city with secrets. Like book covers, some leather, some cloth, each Parisian door led to an unexpected world. A courtyard could contain a knot of bicycles or a plump concierge armed with a broom. In the case of the Library, the massive wooden door opened to a secret garden. Bordered by petunias on one side, lawn on the other, the white pebbled path led to the brick-and-stone mansion. I crossed the threshold, beneath French and American flags flittering side by side, and hung my jacket on the rickety coatrack. Breathing in the best smell in the world—a mélange of the mossy scent of musty books and crisp newspaper pages—I felt as if I’d come home.
A few minutes early for the interview, I skirted the circulation desk, where the always debonair librarian listened to subscribers (“Where can a fella find a decent steak in Paris?” asked a newcomer in cowboy boots. “Why should I pay the fine when I didn’t even finish the book?” demanded cantankerous Madame Simon), and entered the quiet of the cozy reading room.
At a table near the French windows, Professor Cohen read the paper, a jaunty peacock feather tucked in her chignon; Mr. Pryce-Jones pondered Time as he puffed on his pipe. Ordinarily, I would have said hello, but nervous about my interview, I sought refuge in my favorite section of the stacks. I loved being surrounded by stories, some as old as time, others published just last month.
I thought I might check out a novel for my brother. More and more now, at all hours of the night, I would wake to the sound of him typing his tracts. If Rémy wasn’t writing articles about how France should aid the refugees driven out of Spain by the civil war, he was insisting that Hitler would take over Europe the way he’d taken a chunk of Czechoslovakia. The only thing that made Rémy forget his worries—which was to say the worries of others—was a good book.
I ran my fingers along the spines. Choosing one, I opened to a random passage. I never judged a book by its beginning. It felt like the first and last date I’d once had, both of us smiling too brightly. No, I opened to a page in the middle, where the author wasn’t trying to impress me. “There are darknesses in life and there are lights,” I read. “You are one of the lights, the light of all light.” Oui. Merci, Mr. Stoker. This is what I would say to Rémy if I could.
Now I was late. I hurried to the circulation desk, where I signed the card and slid Dracula into my purse. The Directress was waiting. As always, her chestnut hair was swept up in a bun, a silver pen poised in her hand.
Everyone knew of Miss Reeder. She wrote articles for newspapers and dazzled on the radio, inviting all to the Library—students, teachers, soldiers, foreigners, and French. She was adamant that there be a place here for everyone.
“I’m Odile Souchet. Sorry to be late. I was early, and I opened a book...”
“Reading is dangerous,” Miss Reeder said with a knowing smile. “Let’s go to my office.”
I followed her through the reading room, where subscribers in smart suits lowered their newspapers to get a better look at the famous Directress, up the spiral staircase and down a corridor in the sacred “Employees Only” wing to her office, which smelled of coffee. On the wall hung a large aerial photo of a city, its blocks like a chessboard, so different from Paris’s winding streets.
Noting my interest, she said, “That’s Washington, DC. I used to work at the Library of Congress.” She gestured for me to be seated and sat at her desk, which was covered by papers—some trying to sneak out of the tray, others held in place by a hole puncher. In the corner was a shiny black phone. Beside Miss Reeder, a chair held a batch of books. I spied novels by Isak Dinesen and Edith Wharton. A bookmark—a bright ribbon, really—beckoned from each, inviting the Directress to return.
What kind of reader was Miss Reeder? Unlike me, she’d never leave books open-faced for a lack of a marque-page. She’d never leave them piled under her bed. She would have four or five going at once. A book tucked in her purse for bus rides across the city. One that a dear friend had asked her opinion about. Another that no one would ever know about, a secret pleasure for a rainy Sunday afternoon—
“Who’s your favorite author?” Miss Reeder asked.
Who’s your favorite author? An impossible question. How could a person choose only one? In fact, my aunt Caro and I had created categories—dead authors, alive ones, foreign, French, etc.—to avoid having to decide. I considered the books in the reading room I’d touched just a moment ago, books that had touched me. I admired Ralph Waldo Emerson’s way of thinking: I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me, as well as Jane Austen’s. Though the authoress wrote in the nineteenth century, the situation for many of today’s women remained the same: futures determined by whom they married. Three months ago, when I’d informed my parents that I didn’t need a husband, Papa snorted and began bringing a different work subordinate to every Sunday lunch. Like the turkey Maman trussed and sprinkled with parsley, Papa presented each one on a platter: “Marc has never missed a day of work, not even when he had the flu!”
“You do read, don’t you?”
Papa often complained that my mouth worked faster than my mind. In a flash of frustration, I responded to Miss Reeder’s first question.
“My favorite dead author is Dostoevsky, because I like his character Raskolnikov. He’s not the only one who wants to hit someone over the head.”
Why hadn’t I given a normal answer—for example, Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite living author?
“It was an honor to meet you.” I moved to the door, knowing the interview was over.
As my fingers reached for the porcelain knob, I heard Miss Reeder say, “‘Fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid—the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.’”
My favorite line from Crime and Punishment. 891.73. I turned around.
“Most candidates say their favorite is Shakespeare,” she said.
“The only author with his own Dewey Decimal call number.”
“A few mention Jane Eyre.”
That would have been a normal response. Why hadn’t I said Charlotte Brontë, or any Brontë for that matter? “I love Jane, too. The Brontë sisters share the same call number—823.8.”
“But I liked your answer.”
“You said what you felt, not what you thought I wanted to hear.”
That was true.
“Don’t be afraid to be different.” Miss Reeder leaned forward. Her gaze—intelligent, steady—met mine. “Why do you want to work here?”
I couldn’t give her the real reason. It would sound terrible. “I memorized the Dewey Decimal system and got straight As at library school.”
She glanced at my application. “You have an impressive transcript. But you haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m a subscriber here. I love English—”
“I can see that,” she said, a dab of disappointment in her tone. “Thank you for your time. We’ll let you know either way in a few weeks. I’ll see you out.”
Back in the courtyard, I sighed in frustration. Perhaps I should have admitted why I wanted the job.
“What’s wrong, Odile?” asked Professor Cohen. I loved her standing-room-only lecture series, English Literature at the American Library. In her signature purple shawl, she made daunting books like Beowulf accessible, and her lectures were lively, with a soupçon of sly humor. Clouds of a scandalous past wafted in her wake like the lilac notes of her parfum. They said Madame le professeur was originally from Milan. A prima ballerina who gave up star status (and her stodgy husband) in order to follow a lover to Brazzaville. When she returned to Paris—alone—she studied at the Sorbonne, where, like Simone de Beauvoir, she’d passed l’agrégation, the nearly impossible state exam, to be able to teach at the highest level.
“I made a fool of myself at my job interview.”
“A smart young woman like you? Did you tell Miss Reeder that you don’t miss a single one of my lectures? I wish my students were as faithful!”
“I didn’t think to mention it.”
“Include everything you want to tell her in a thank-you note.”
“She won’t choose me.”
“Life’s a brawl. You must fight for what you want.”
“I’m not sure...”
“Well, I am,” Professor Cohen said. “Think the old-fashioned men at the Sorbonne hired me just like that? I worked damned hard to convince them that a woman could teach university courses.”
I looked up. Before, I’d only noticed the professor’s purple shawl. Now I saw her steely eyes.
“Being persistent isn’t a bad thing,” she continued, “though my father complained I always had to have the last word.”
“Mine too. He calls me ‘unrelenting.’”
“Put that quality to use.”
She was right. In my favorite books, the heroines never gave up. Professor Cohen had a point about putting my thoughts in a letter. Writing was easier than speaking face-to-face. I could cross things out and start over, a hundred times if I needed to.
“You’re right...,” I told her.
“Of course I am! I’ll inform the Directress that you always ask the best questions at my lectures, and you be sure to follow through.” With a swish of her shawl, she strode into the Library.
It never mattered how low I felt, someone at the ALP always managed to scoop me up and put me on an even keel. The Library was more than bricks and books; its mortar was people who cared. I’d spent time in other libraries, with their hard wooden chairs and their polite “Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Au revoir, Mademoiselle.” There was nothing wrong with these bibliothèques, they simply lacked the camaraderie of real community. The Library felt like home.
“Odile! Wait!” It was Mr. Pryce-Jones, the retired English diplomat in his paisley bow tie, followed by the cataloger Mrs. Turnbull, with her crooked blue-gray bangs. Professor Cohen must have told them I was feeling discouraged.
“Nothing is ever lost.” He patted my back awkwardly. “You’ll win the Directress over. Just write a list of your arguments, like any diplomat worth his salt and pepper would.”
“Quit mollycoddling the girl!” Mrs. Turnbull told him. Turning to me, she said, “In my native Winnipeg, we’re used to adversity. Makes us who we are. Winters with temperatures of minus forty degrees, and you won’t hear us complain, unlike Americans....” Remembering the reason she’d stepped outside—an opportunity to boss someone—she stuck a bony finger in my face. “Buck up, and don’t take no for an answer!”
With a smile, I realized that home was a place where there were no secrets. But I was smiling. That was already something.
Back in my bedroom, no longer nervous, I wrote:
Dear Miss Reeder,
Thank you for discussing the job with me. I was thrilled to be interviewed. This library means more to me than any place in Paris. When I was little, my aunt Caroline took me to Story Hour. It’s thanks to her that I studied English and fell in love with the Library. Though my aunt is no longer with us, I continue to seek her at the ALP. I open books and turn to their pockets in the back, hoping to see her name on the card. Reading the same novels as she did makes me feel like we’re still close.
The Library is my haven. I can always find a corner of the stacks to call my own, to read and dream. I want to make sure everyone has that chance, most especially the people who feel different and need a place to call home.
I signed my name, finishing the interview.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Paris Library includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a conversation with the author. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In The Paris Library, inspired by the true story of librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II, two young women come of age under very difference circumstances—one in occupied Paris and one in rural Montana some forty years later.
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet has it all: her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved Library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by an air of mystery about her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.
1. Chapter 1 begins with Odile noting that “numbers floated round my head like stars” (3) as she runs through the Dewey Decimal system in her head. What does this opening say about her?
2. When Odile is first introduced as Mrs. Gustafson, Lily notes that she “donned her Sunday best—a pleated skirt and high heels—just to take out the trash. A red belt showed off her waist. Always.” (10) What does the red belt represent? And why, at the end of the novel, does she replace “her tatty red belt with a stylish black one”? (344)
3. Miss Reeder “was adamant that there was a place here for everyone” (3) at the Library. How do she and others like Boris and the Countess prove that throughout the Occupation?
4. Odile and Lily come from very different backgrounds, different countries, and different eras. Where do they find common ground?
5. Among the Library’s subscribers and habitués are many fascinating and eccentric characters, such as Professor Cohen and Mr. Pryce-Jones. Who is your favorite, and why?
6. Consider Odile’s Aunt Caroline, and how Caro’s experience informs Odile’s decisions regarding Paul and Buck. Do you believe Odile’s assertion that her mother would “cast me out, just like Aunt Caro”? (332)
7. Why do you think Janet Skeslien Charles decided to interweave Lily’s story, set in Montana in the 1980s, with Odile’s story in Paris during World War II? What do the dual narratives reveal, and how do they reflect on each other?
8. How is Lily’s adolescence in Montana similar to Odile’s own coming of age in Paris? How do books and learning the French language serve as a refuge for Lily?
9. Odile refers to Bitsi as her “bookmate” (50) and later reflects on their experiences by noting that “coming face-to-face with Bitsi is like looking in the mirror” (166). How does their friendship develop over the course of the novel?
10. When Professor Cohen finishes her manuscript, she knows she cannot publish it, and she entrusts it to Odile, saying, “Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive. Without you, I couldn’t have continued this long. You’ve reminded me that there’s good in the world” (240). What does this speech mean to you? Does this serve as greater motivation for Odile to continue her work?
11. Odile discovers the “crow letters,” letters and “denunciations . . . from black-hearted people who spy on neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Even family members” (283) in her father’s office. Lily, too, finds the letters at Odile’s house. What do these letters, signed by “one who knows,” show? Why do you think the author includes them?
12. Toward the end of the novel, after the Liberation, we see the insidious cycle of violence as Paul and his colleagues attack Margaret, stating, “She wasn’t a woman to them, not anymore. They’d been beaten and humiliated. Now it was their turn to beat, to strike, to slash” (312). How does this event change the course of the novel? How do these men perpetuate the cycle of violence? Would you have reacted as Odile does, or what would you have done differently?
13. At the end of the novel, Odile says that “it seemed that life had offered me an epilogue” (342). How does Lily and Odile’s intergenerational friendship provide them both with a safe place to grow?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the website of the American Library in Paris, celebrating its centennial in 2020, to learn more about the Library, its programs, and its history: americanlibraryinparis.org.
2. Get out a map of Paris and locate places mentioned in the book, including rue de Rome, Saint-Augustin church, Le Bristol, and 23 rue Blanche.
3. Odile’s love of literature is infectious, and The Paris Library is sprinkled with references and quotes from her favorite books, including Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment, and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Jane Eyre. Share your favorite lines from your own favorite books.
4. Visit the author’s website at jskesliencharles.com to learn more about Janet Skeslien Charles’s work and the book.
1. You worked as the programs manager at the American Library in Paris. In the Author’s Note you thank several people who helped with the inspiration and research of this novel. What led you to write this story in particular?
I love the Library and wanted to share the story of the incredible staff who stayed during the war in order to help others because they believed in the importance of community and in books as bridges.
There were themes that I wanted to explore as well. What does it mean to say you are sorry or to show you are sorry? Today, instead of issuing a real apology when we hurt someone, we may say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” We all make mistakes. How we take responsibility for our words and actions reveals who we are. Odile takes responsibility for her actions and shows she is sorry.
One of the most important elements of the novel is the transmission of stories and memories. In Lily’s graduation speech, she remembers her parents and shares their wisdom with the audience. She also quotes people from Odile’s past, from Paul to Professor Cohen, from Miss Reeder to Monsieur de Nerciat. They live on through Lily. I like to think that we can keep loved ones alive through memory, by sharing pieces of them.
2. The love of literature and reading contained here is infectious. What inspired you to write a novel about books? What are some of your favorite books?
Books are my best friends. I especially love rereading novels and finding new insights and ideas. The books stay the same, but we readers evolve. When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a teen, I only saw the love story and how Janie refused to settle. A second reading underscored that the friendship between Janie and Pheoby is the most important relationship of the book. With another reading, I am in awe of Zora Neale Hurston’s prose, so I read slowly to savor her talent. I appreciate the anthropological heritage that the author has created for generations to come, as well as the universal truth that we can’t protect the people we love, and we can’t make their choices or live their lives.
I love the power of Good Morning, Midnight. The way that Jean Rhys describes loneliness, desperation, feeling judged, and being in danger. She, too, is magnificent, and was ahead of her time. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a masterpiece.
3. What was the hardest scene to write? What was the easiest?
The most challenging scenes for me were the ones with Miss Reeder, Boris, and the Countess. I wanted their words to bring them back to life, but also worried about putting the wrong words in their mouths. I was reassured to receive a note from Boris’s son, who wrote that I’d captured his father.
The easiest were the descriptions of small-town Montana. I miss it when I am not there, and hope that I conveyed the beauty and kindness of the people—for example, how the ladies came together to prepare food for the funeral without being asked. They’d lived through hard times, and wanted to makes these difficult moments easier for others.
4. Throughout the novel, characters are put in difficult situations, forced to disobey superiors, or act in opposition to their values—such as Margaret with Felix, Dr. Fuchs with the ALP, and Paul with Professor Cohen. What drew you to these moral dissonances?
We like to think we know how we will react in certain situations. We think, “I would never do that or be like that,” when in fact we simply cannot know. And, likewise, people surprise us. Odile and Monsieur de Nerciat discuss the importance of putting oneself in another’s skin (or shoes) and trying not to judge. I have a lot of empathy for these characters and the tough decisions they needed to make. Paul in particular had a hard time of it, torn between his love of Odile and his respect for her father, between following orders and following what he knew to be right. In real life, people are often bewildering. Fiction offers the opportunity of an inner glimpse, to understand a character’s thought process. Paul becomes violent, and, step by step, we can pinpoint why.
5. The climax of the novel is Odile’s betrayal of Margaret, which she does mostly unwittingly, and which has ramifications for the rest of Odile’s life. In many ways, this novel is about both the power of friendship and of community. Why did you choose this moment?
For me, this scene was about the small moments that accumulated and overwhelmed Odile. If Odile had been able to tell Margaret from the beginning when Margaret hurt her feelings or upset her, this explosion of resentment never would have happened. But Odile was not able to admit how she felt when Margaret said thoughtless things. Because Odile could not be forthright when Margaret hurt her feelings, Margaret never knew of Odile’s resentment, and Margaret herself never had the opportunity to change how she thought and spoke. This situation in the book is very specific, but speaks to a general trend. These conversations, where we must tell people when we are uncomfortable or upset, are challenging. Many people today would rather cut off relatives and friends completely than express how they actually feel. We tend to bottle our feelings and then come to a breaking point. And then the fabric of community tears more. I hope this book will help us mend it.
6. Although you are originally from Montana, you’ve lived in Paris for a number of years. What are some of the most surprising aspects of living in, or between, two countries? How has your experience as an expat influenced your world view?
For me, the biggest difference isn’t between France and the United States, but between the city and the country. Like Lily, I longed to escape the quiet countryside. I resented small-town life. Now I’m grateful for my roots, for my parents and grandmother who shared their love of reading, for the librarians who not only created a safe haven but also recommended books that put my feelings into words and showed me that I wasn’t alone. Now I return to Montana, to my roots, with a sense of gratitude. I love spending time with my family and my teachers and librarians, who have become dear friends.
Both of my novels are about culture shock and remaking a life for oneself in a new place—situations I know well. Before I came to Paris, I was a teacher. My foreign degree wasn’t recognized in France, and I had to start over. I’m interested in the clash of cultures, and coming of age (at any age), as well as the elements that make us who we are—friends and family, first loves and favorite authors. I want to show the effect that we have on each other, how we hinder and help each other, and how we carry our loved ones with us (whether we want to or not). I could not have written my novels if I had stayed in one place. I needed to feel the distance, the longing, the sadness, the homesickness to write my characters.
7. What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
That communication is key. It’s important to learn how to talk about our feelings before they overwhelm us. Libraries are key. This book is a love letter to libraries and librarians. In this digital age, our libraries—our third space, our sanctuary, our source of facts in a fake-news world—are more vital than ever. We need these havens of stories and imagination. The Paris Library is a reminder that we must appreciate and support these vital community centers.
8. What are you working on next?
This was a challenging book to research. I spent nearly ten years in one of the darkest periods in history, reading “crow letters” in archives and watching footage of women having their heads shorn in public. When I took breaks from the novel, I researched other librarians and other countries. I am hoping to tell you more about these projects soon.