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The Paris Library

The Paris Library

by Janet Skeslien Charles

Narrated by Nicky Diss, Sarah Feathers, Esther Wane

Unabridged — 11 hours, 53 minutes

Janet Skeslien Charles

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Overview

An instant New York Times, Washington Post, and USA TODAY bestseller-based on the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II-The Paris Library is a moving and unforgettable “ode to the importance of libraries, books, and the human connections we find within both” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).

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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Editorial Reviews

Woman's World

"Captivating, richly drawn."

Booklist - Candace Smith

In 1979 Montana, pre-teen Lily is curious about her neighbor, the mysterious Odile Gustofson. All Lily knows is that Odile lived in Paris during WWII and that she still speaks with a captivating French accent. In an attempt to get to know her, Lily decides to interview Odile for a school project that leads to French lessons and a life-saving friendship. In chapters alternating between 1939 Paris and 1970s Montana, Odile’s past is revealed. As a young woman, Odile worked as a librarian at the American Library in Paris. Her love of books and libraries shines through the dialogue read by Sarah Feathers in a charming French accent. Reader Nicky Diss picks up Lily’s narrative, giving her a youthful American sound that contrasts with Feathers’ tones. She handles the older Odile’s French words with ease. Esther Wane fills in assorted characters’ chapters, sounding appropriately English, and the author reads the historical notes at the end of the recording. This is a wonderful story of the occupation, friendships across the years, and the power of books, all beautifully read. Listeners with a fondness for libraries, French language, or fine historical fiction will be enchanted.

Tatiana de Rosnay

As a Parisian, an ardent bookworm, and a longtime fan of the American Library in Paris, I devoured The Paris Library in one hungry gulp. It is charming and moving, with a perfect balance between history and fiction.

Booklist

"A love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship."

The Free Lance-Star

"A book about families torn apart, friends lost and found, fear, hope, inspiration, and books and a love of reading. Bravo to Janet Skeslien Charles."

Fiona Davis

A fresh take on WWII France that will appeal to bibliophiles everywhere. I fell in love with Odile and Lily, with their struggles and triumphs, from the very first page. Meticulously researched, The Paris Library is an irresistible, compelling read.

Kristin Harmel

"Having lived in an apartment just above the current location of the American Library in Paris, I've always felt connected to the institution and wondered about its story, so I'm grateful to Janet Skeslien Charles for penning such a vivid, enjoyable, based-on-a-true-story tale. In THE PARIS LIBRARY, the beloved library, its staff, and its subscribers come to life and remind us of both the horrors of World War II and the vital role books play in keeping us afloat in difficult times. Well-researched, stirring, and rich with detail, THE PARIS LIBRARY is an ode to the importance of libraries, books, and the human connections we find within both."

BookPage

What makes The Paris Library such a tender read is Charles's firsthand experience... Her meticulous research brings these figures to life.... Together the true storylines provide wonderful insight into relationships and friendships that transcend time and place.”

Parade

For anyone...who cherishes books."

Business Insider

"A descriptive and deeply intriguing piece of historical fiction that will pull on the heartstrings of all book lovers."

New York Journal of Books

"Well-plotted and richly populated."

Matthew Sullivan

“The Paris Library is a refreshing novel that celebrates libraries as cradles of community, especially when we need them the most. It shows how literature can be a means of escape, a catalyst for human connection, and a moral center in grim times. A thoroughly enjoyable read, kind-hearted and brimming with delightful bookish allusions.

AudioFile Magazine

"Three narrators present a little-known story about the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The two main characters are a precocious preteen named Lily, who lives in Montana in 1983, and a librarian named Odile, who lives in Paris in 1939. Narrator Nicky Diss presents a sunny, high-spirited Lily, who is passionate about books and in love with the Dewey Decimal System. Narrator Sarah Feathers offers an understated yet substantial portrait of Odile, who reveals how she and library staffers tried to save the ALP by defying the Nazis—and suffered the consequences. When the war bride and the teenager meet in Montana, their mutual love of books unites them. Narrator Esther Wane deftly handles the third-person chapters."

Library Journal - Audio

★ 06/01/2021

Based on the real-life American Library in Paris and the brave acts of its librarians during World War II, this novel begins with Odile Souchet, a young woman who dreams of being a librarian. For a short time, Odile's life feels magical. She has a job at the American Library and a romance with a young police officer named Paul. Then the war erupts and the Nazis occupy Paris. The library can no longer circulate a range of titles, and Jewish subscribers are banned, though the librarians secretly deliver books to those who ask. This narrative alternates between the World War II timeline and 1980s Montana where Odile now lives. As she builds a relationship with her young neighbor Lily, listeners learn more about what happened during the war. The audiobook's three narrators, Nicky Diss, Sarah Feathers, and Esther Wane, give voice to Odile, Lily, and a host of additional characters with a variety of accents; they lend a sense of authenticity to each character's personal thoughts, as well as the dialogue between characters. An author's note shows how the story line is connected to real events and people. VERDICT This expertly interwoven story will be a sure hit with librarians and bibliophiles, but is also a great choice for history buffs and anyone who enjoys interconnected stories about love and friendship.—Courtney Pentland, Omaha, NE

Product Details

BN ID: 2940173267245
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

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.”

Silence.

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 did?”

“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.

“Odile?”

“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.

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