Charlotte Foret is in a dangerously vulnerable position. She is a French widow living in Paris during the German Occupation. Food is as scarce as reliable intel concerning the war effort. And German soldiers (with willing assistance from local gendarmes) can at any moment, decide to round-up French citizens, carting them off to places unknown; their fates, a terrifying mystery. The multitude of threats to her personal safety, as well as, the precarious nature of war highlight Charlotte’s vulnerability. However, there’s even more at stake. Charlotte has a young daughter, Vivienne, who is malnourished and often sick, further weakening Charlotte’s embattled position. When an enigmatic German soldier, with unclear intentions, begins to frequent the bookstore Charlotte manages, a bond forms between the two, and a path towards survival becomes a very real possibility.
Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman, travels back and forth in time between 1940s occupied Paris and 1950s New York, where we discover that Charlotte and Vivienne have survived their ordeal and are thriving in a postwar America brimming with opportunities. Although the scourge of anti-semitism is still very much present, Charlotte has found success as an editor in a publishing company. She enjoys her chosen profession, but it has its drawbacks. She suffers from the guilt felt by many working mothers; at one point, referring to her daughter as a latchkey kid. Scrutiny concerning her past has become fodder for office gossip. Complicating matters, Charlotte finds herself struggling to make sense of the developing relationship between her and her boss, Horace Field, a married WW2 veteran with his own dark secrets. Adding to her anxiety, Vivienne has started asking questions about her early life in France. Her daughter’s desire to understand, and forge connections to the past, force Charlotte into uncomfortable territory. Thus far, she has survived by keeping secrets. But in time, truth will out . And by sharing the story of those turbulent years, Charlotte may open a door to self-discovery, forgiveness, and deeper love.
Paris Never Leaves You is an intelligently crafted novel about morality. And specifically, it addresses morality in a time of war. It’s difficult for anyone to know with certainty how they would behave in any given situation, unless they’re actually confronted with it. And if the situation literally involves a choice between one’s life or one’s death, things can become further complicated. The rules dictating right and wrong lose clarity in the face of war. Some would do whatever it takes to survive, no matter the cost. This novel advocates for a more nuanced understanding of human nature in the midst of extraordinary circumstances like these. Charlotte Foret, in spite of the secrets she holds close to the chest, authentically demonstrates the complexities of survivor’s guilt: the anxiety and fear, the justifications and obfuscations, that in the end, lead to excessive self-criticism and despondency. Paris Never Leaves You is an intricately layered work with lasting power, that appropriately leaves you with more questions than answers. A penetrating think-piece. A fascinating story. I highly recommend it.