It’s almost time for Paris in July! Beginning Friday it’s all things French all the time (because despite the name you can read books set outside of Paris) for those of us who’ve signed up at Thyme for Tea. This event is now in its seventh year which is an amazing run for a blogging event. I haven’t participated in a few years, but I have enjoyed the France-themed books I’ve read in the past so I decided to give it a go again this July. My hope is to read at least 4 books set in France – two non-fiction and two fiction.
One of the novels I’m going to read is The Chateau by William Maxwell. The other novel is still up in the air, but I think it will be The Blessing by Nancy Mitford. As for the two non-fiction titles, I’m awaiting the arrival of two galleys I’ve requested from publishers that are both France-related – I can kill two birds with one stone by reading for this event and reading ahead for work. I know I should probably read a book by an actual French author so I may ditch The Blessing and choose a translated novel instead – or I can try to add a translated novel to the stack. We’ll see!
Are you participating in Paris in July? Can you recommend any French novels for me to try?
I had no plans to read this book. I usually stay away from the overly hyped books of the year, not so much because I think they’ll be a fraud, but because it’s so hard to get my hands on a copy and they usually don’t seem worth giving up a precious spot on my holds list for. This one, though, kept calling my name so I put a hold on my library’s digital copy. I got the notification of its availability on a day when I was between books and as soon as I started reading it I knew it was going to be a wonderful journey.
The novel uses a dual narrative that alternates between the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, and Werner, a German boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in a depressed mining town. Their lives before the war are ripe with discovery and curiosity: Marie-Laure about whelks and other shelled creatures, Werner about science and radios in particular. As conflict between the two nations approaches Werner is recruited into the Hitler Youth and sent to a school to learn how to be a perfect soldier and his skill with radios is utilized to further the efforts of discovering resistance broadcasts in Russia and Poland.
When the German army marches into Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee and turn up in Saint- Malo at the home of her great-uncle Etienne, a man still suffering from the trauma of serving in WWI who is also obsessed with radios. Marie-Laure’s father constructs detailed, miniature models of the walled city to teach her how to navigate the streets and alleyways on her own though she is rarely let out into the occupied city. Madame Manec (my favorite character in the novel), her uncle’s caretaker, handles the intricacies of finding food, complying with curfews and orders and sharing information with the neighbors. She also recruits her female friends into resistance efforts by partaking in small rebellions like baking loaves of bread that conceal secret communiques that they pass along to key resistance figures, efforts that Marie-Laure also supports.
In August of 1944 after living for years under occupation Saint-Malo is bombed by American planes. Amazingly, the paths of Werner and Marie-Laure finally intertwine amid fire and destruction. Doerr seamlessly brings these two incredible characters together through a series of believable coincidences that underlie the plot.
The writing is incredibly lyrical with beautiful imagery and a perfect, understated tone. Describing both living under occupation in France and serving in the occupying German army brilliantly shows the humanity of both sides and doesn’t demonize the Germans or glorify the French. The emotions, decisions and motives of the characters are complex and layered as is this story. There are many, many levels of enchantment here, too many to mention, and the way they combine makes a gorgeous, robust novel. I was completely engrossed and am happy that this was the last book I read in 2014. I ended the year on a high note, indeed.