One of my favorite movies to show to my 11th grade U.S. History students has always been “Midnight in Paris,” for its themes on falling in love with a city, with art, with music…and of realizing that there is not better time to be alive than the one in which you live. The main character in the movie, an American screenwriter, muses on how romantic Paris is in the rain, and how it seems so odd to him that anyone would choose to live somewhere else. I thought about that a great deal as I dove into “Paris Never Leaves You,” because for our heroine, Charlotte, the exact opposite is true. She feels haunted by her old life in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and worries that at some point her barely buried demons will catch up to her. She relishes life in New York City, with its comparative anonymity, and is proud of the life she has built for herself and her daughter Vivi. In fact, she probably wonders why anyone would choose to live in Paris instead.
As I continued to read, my mind turned away from whimsical movies, and towards darker present realities. “Paris Never Leaves You,” seems particularly timely, with its themes of oppression, in groups vs. out groups, racial discrimination, and resistance. Naturally, with a backdrop of WWII and Nazi occupation, Ellen Feldman touches frequently on the idea of discrimination based on religious identity, both in her brief mentions of detainment in Drancy, and with Vivi’s heartbreak over not being invited to a party because the anti-Semitic grandmother of the girl throwing it can’t bear the thought of having a Jew in her home. Charlotte and Vivi lived through mass deportations, and through being looked down upon by the Nazi occupiers and French resistance fighters alike. When Charlotte fell in love with a German soldier and doctor, who took care of herself and an infant Vivi, she was threatened by her fellow Parisians for consorting with the enemy, while also facing the ever-present of midnight roundups at the hands of the Nazis.
The idea of herself as a betrayer of her country wounds Charlotte deeply, creating a chasm of grief and shame that she is still grappling with years later while living in New York, and those feelings are brought to the forefront of the story when she receives a letter from her former lover. Her feelings of being complicit because she took food and medical supplies while allowing her Jewish neighbors to be beaten and deported, echo our modern feelings that those who stand silently by during times of protest and grief over the brutal treatment of minorities are likewise complicit in the oppression and bloodshed. Failing to stick up for neighbors being deported because of their religion due to fears for one’s safety may not really be so different from avoiding protests against racial discrimination due to fear for oneself. And just as many of us have had to start the uncomfortable business of self-reflection of our own ingrained bias, and the bias of our family, friends, and political figures, so must Charlotte come to terms with her actions — and lack of action — during the war.
Ellen Feldman does an excellent job of weaving historical accuracy into her fictional story, even bringing to light something I had not previously considered: how would, and could, a Jew serve in Hitler’s military? She also examines a more temporal, but no less intriguing, question: how would, and could, an otherwise patriotic women fall in love with a man she perceives to be the enemy? The jumps between the past and present were a bit jarring at times, but overall they did not detract from the arc of the story. My main critique of the book lies in the avoidance of describing Charlotte and Vivi’s time in Drancy, and the fact that at times it seemed almost like talk of concentration camps was intentionally glossed over or avoided. I believe this is because the point of this story was different than what we typically expect from this time period, and spending too much time exploring that angle might have complicated the plot, but all the same it sometimes felt like a glaring omission. One other word of warning, this book is certainly not for the Happily Ever After crowd, because the ending is decidedly bittersweet. Yet, despite my sadness over some aspects of the ending, I find myself recommending this book with no reservations. “Paris Never Leaves You” raises many stirring questions, while doing an outstanding job of highlighting the importance of living for the future while letting go of the ghosts of the past, and explores aspects of WWII and its aftermath that are rarely written about, making it a worthy edition to any summer reading list.