Even here in 2023, World War II figures largely in historical fiction: it’s a setting we return to, time and time again. Kristin Harmel enters the bibliography of WWII fiction with The Paris Daughter, a chunky, decades-spanning novel, which only briefly focuses on the war, but reverberates with the repercussions of different actions taken during the war by each character, and how they shaped the rest of their lives.
In the fall of 1939, a pregnant American ex-pat, Elise LeClair meets Juliette Foulon, another American ex-pat. Both moved to Paris, have French husbands, and Juliette is also pregnant. They become fast friends, Elise escaping her apartment to spend time in Juliette’s loving and busy bookshop, their infant daughters born around the same time. While war hovers in the distance, Elise is increasingly afraid for her famous artist husband’s activities involving the Communist Party. Because of his actions, Elise becomes a target for the Germans, and she knows she has to leave. Enter Juliette, who swears to love and protect Elise’s daughter Matilde as her own.
But war happens. Juliette’s bookshop is hit by a bomb, and everything she knows is gone. Elise, on the other hand, spends the rest of her war years protecting Jewish children in hiding, all the while longing for Mathilde, and using her skills as a wood sculptor to carve Mathilde’s face over and over again. When Paris is liberated, Elise goes to find Mathilde and Juliette. Instead, she finds nothing.
Harmel ties the rest of their linked stories back to these pivotal years. Both Elise and Juliette, separated by time and experience, different forms of loss, and different approaches to that loss, struggle to engage with the world after the war, and build their lives structured around the gaping holes in their lives. Elise, alone and bereft, continues to carve Mathilde, endlessly, though she begins to have modest success as an artist. Juliette rebuilds a replica of her Parisian bookstore in New York, and continues living in those years before the bomb, imagining her family is with her, and not just her surviving daughter, Lucie. The Paris Daughter is deeply, tragically sad. The novel is weighty with grief, and the ways we act and wrestle with pain too big to keep inside. Elise and Juliette do eventually find one another, and their contrast between how they revisit those tender war memories is both staggering and entirely believable.
The Paris Daughter is a war novel, but one that focuses much more on the aftermath and how people carried what they did and experienced with them. It’s heartbreaking in a truly gut-wrenching way, but also delicately hopeful. Any historical fiction reader will appreciate the careful storytelling here, and those of us who’ve read a lot of war fiction will appreciate the way Harmel handles the trauma and tragedy in multiple situations.
About the Author
Kristin Harmel is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen novels including The Forest of Vanishing Stars, The Book of Lost Names, The Room on Rue Amélie, and The Sweetness of Forgetting. She is published in more than thirty languages and is the cofounder and cohost of the popular web series, Friends & Fiction. She lives in Orlando, Florida.
- Publisher : Gallery Books; Canadian Export edition (June 6 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1668026937
- ISBN-13 : 978-1668026939