Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book review: The Last Time I Saw Paris, by Lynn Sheene

Lynn Sheene takes risks with her heroine, Claire Harris Stone, by making her a gold-digging Manhattan socialite.  In May 1940, with the world on the brink of war, she shamelessly flirts with her husband's German clients to soften them up for business deals. Over the course of her debut novel The Last Time I Saw Paris, Sheene successfully transforms Claire into a woman who's much more selfless and sympathetic, but just as courageous and hard-edged - thanks to the considerable risks Claire takes for herself.

When her husband discovers she's not the blue-blood she claimed to be, Claire flees New York for Paris, the promised City of Light, hoping to connect up with a former lover. Germany has just invaded Poland, but Claire is still taken aback when the Nazis move in to occupy the city. (Her naïveté defies belief at times, especially given her street-smarts in other respects.) She takes refuge with an aristocratic florist, Madame Palain, who employs her under the table. Claire agrees to help the Resistance only because they can provide the fake identity papers she needs.

Madame Palain knows the importance of beauty during hard times and vows to keep her shop open. The floral deliveries Claire makes to Nazi gatherings at swanky hotels gives her the chance to gain intelligence for her contacts, who include an Englishman named Thomas Grey - a friend of her old lover. As she and Grey walk through the Luxembourg Gardens together, exchanging information, their opinions toward one another gradually shift until she comes to care for him and his safety more than she does for herself. Then her cover is blown, for a second time.

The novel offers up a vivid yet stark vision of a cultured European city at one of its darkest hours. Danger is ever-present; people are detained, carted away, and shot for the slimmest of "offenses," and fear and desperation become a tragic part of life. But despite the unease that grips northern France, the indomitable spirit of Paris endures and is described in terms that suit its nature. One park is "a stately woman, her well-bred bones showing through the ravages of the season." The plot grows increasingly suspenseful as the months and years pass under the Occupation, and as Claire is exposed to greater peril.

The ending raises more questions than it answers, but The Last Time I Saw Paris is well worth reading for its page-turning storyline, edgy atmosphere, and progressive insight into the character of a determined woman with a strong instinct for survival.

The Last Time I Saw Paris appeared in May from Berkley at $15/$17.50 in Canada (trade paperback, 354pp).

8 comments:

  1. Oh, this sounds like a book that would suit my reading tastes perfectly!

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  2. This sounds like a really interesting read- thanks for the great review.

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  3. Sounds interesting.

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  4. I love the cover and the story line sounds interesting. I have been dying to get my hands on this one since HNS conference!

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  5. The cover is really evocative, somewhat chillingly so, given the premise of the novel. I love the concept, but I'm not sure I could read the book. The losses and sufferings of the Resistance during those years are sometimes hard to think on.

    Chalk it up to swallowing a little too much history, a little too personally.... Or do any of you also find that after a while, if you are a historian and a writer, that the line between past and present starts to blur?

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  6. I think I just found my lazy-summer-afternoon book! Thanks!

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  7. Glad to hear it!

    Lucy - yes, it is difficult reading sometimes, and it does get across what it was like to be a member of the Resistance, although with the romantic focus it isn't as grim as others I've read about the era.

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