Top positive review
Honoring the Bravery of Unsung Heroines
November 22, 2018
The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff is a compelling read that transports the reader to the days just before and after the end of WW2. Those who enjoyed the Alice Network, understand the dangers of thwarting the Nazis and are in the mood for another novel emphasizing the bravery and unknown service of women trained as spies to aid the resistance movement in France during the German occupation will find this story of behind-the-scenes radio operatives both nail-biting and sad. Even as Jenoff succeeds in creating a fast-moving tale that is one part mystery and one part investigation, I found that the writer's 2018 sensibilities and modern voice often times inserted themselves where perhaps the voices of the three women and their times should have been sufficient. It seems the modern trend in this sort of literature is to depict the female character as someone on a feminist mission--someone who wouldn't think twice about leaving their jobs or family for a day to march on Washington. The women in this novel are from a different generation--their missions were bigger than personal--so much so that the concept of ME never entered into their decision making.
With that said, the novel tells the story of three different women. Grace from New York during the period after the war before the Nuremburg trials were in full swing. Grace happens upon a valise in the middle of Grand Central Station on a morning when she's hanging her head in a bit of a walk of shame. After opening the bag to find a dozen photographs of young women, her curiosity is piqued, especially after she discovers that the woman who owned the bag was killed in a hit and run accident in the street just outside the station.
The second voice is that of Eleanor, a woman working for the British SOE during the last years of the war. Her job was to train women operatives to go to France undercover in order to transmit detailed information about German troop movement and such to help speed up the D-Day invasion. Eleanor, an immigrant from Eastern Europe wants nothing more than to be a British citizen and help her country fight the Nazi oppression of Europe. Of course, her 'girls' are regarded as secondary to the men who were fighting the war on the ground and in the skies every day and Eleanor feels she must prove their worth to gain them the gravitas their bravery deserves.
The third voice is that of Marie--one of Eleanor's girls. The reader goes through recruitment, training and eventual deployment with this feisty woman who puts everything on the line for her young daughter back in London.
The story is told in an alternative chapter format where each woman is given her time in the spotlight. From Grace's perspective, the reader learns what paperwork and documents reveal and don't reveal; from Eleanor and Marie's, the story's dimension fully fleshes out to reveal the horror and disappointment of playing with danger, being caught, never finding answers and being dismissed--buried under paperwork, red tape and arson and never remembered.
Jenoff makes a point of showing how war is run by governments willing to barter with individual's lives. Two minutes after the armistice is signed, these governments must define new enemies. Ironically, the Russian allies are now Cold War Soviets and the German scientists who once produced gases to promulgate genocide are now wooed to help aid in the new scientist of the atom bomb. Sad, indeed and confusing to those who lost their family members to these changing definitions.
Two of the stories end happily, one does not. Nevertheless, all three women manage to achieve something personal beyond the mere discovery of what happened to Eleanor's girls. These revelations launch each woman into the second half of the 20th century with more nuanced insights.
Bottom line? Even though I liked the Lost Girls of Paris, I found the storyline as well as the character motivations predictable. Of course, the women are going to forge onward dauntless to threat of torture and death--what sort of Wonder Women would we be if we opted for conventional lives? There are countless women--and men--who work toward the common good without needing to be known or remembered on the front page of a newspaper or internet site. Think back to 9-11 when as we all felt that uncertainty, we naturally and instinctually banded together to mourn and work together. I only felt that spirit in this novel once--via the character Josie--a spitfire of a girl who works as part of a team without any need for self-aggrandizement. Nevertheless, I recommend the book as a page-turning read.