The next installment in my unintentional historical-fiction journey this month brings me to Paris in the 1940s, just as Hitler and the Nazis have taken over France. The Parisians follows three women who do what it takes to survive in the city they love during the tumultuous World War II.
Paris, 1940. The Nazis have occupied the city—and the Ritz. The opulent old hotel, so loved by Parisians, is now full of swaggering officers, their minions and their mistresses.
For American Olivia Olsen, working as a chambermaid at the hotel means denying her nationality and living a lie, every day bringing the danger of discovery closer. When Hitler’s right-hand man moves in and makes her his pet, she sees an opportunity to help the Resistance—and draw closer to Jack, her contact, whose brusque instructions may be a shield for something more…
Within the hotel, famed designer Coco Chanel quickly learns that the new regime could work to her benefit, while Arletty, one of France’s best-loved actresses, shocks those around her—and herself—with a forbidden love.
But as the war reaches its terrible end, all three women learn the true price of their proximity to the enemy. For in the shadow of war, is anyone truly safe?
This the first book I’ve read by Marius Gabriel, and I’ve got to say: The man really does his research. While there were a few fictional characters in this novel, a large number of the cast was inspired by true events and real people—and we got the imagining of how their stories concluded the way they did. Although I really wasn’t interested in Coco Chanel’s story in the slightest (it really didn’t seem like she worked very hard to get where she was or keep what she had), I was not at all familiar with Arletty, and find myself wanting to delve a little deeper into her biography. Chanel and Arletty were not as three-dimensional as I would have liked—their motivations were not as clear as the third (and most exciting) woman of the novel. The fictional Olivia is where my heart and interest was held the most. She’s an ordinary woman of little means who stepped up to try to end a war she could have easily escaped by going home. She’s the real hero of this story.
Though a lot of the plot centres on the love lives of these three women, I wouldn’t consider it a romantic book, necessarily. These women had to do what they needed to survive—and sometimes that means falling in love with men they shouldn’t. The story is really what’s at the heart of this novel, and if the subject matter interests you in the slightest, I would definitely recommend it. I thought it started a little slowly, though, so make sure you give it time before you make your final decision.
Food for thought
Clearly, I’m on a bit of a roll with the genre, and I’m really digging the time period. In light of this, I want to know: What’s your favourite WWII-era fiction?
“What did men expect of women? That they should think and act as men did, and sacrifice all their own nature to the gods of war? And yet be ready with legs open when men were ready to be comforted, and be soft and pliable, and tell them how clever they had been at killing and maiming?”
― Marius Gabriel, The Parisians
Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Publishing UK for the advanced copy, and to Paul Dufour on Unsplash for the aerial view of Paris.