Saturday, July 03, 2021

Review of The Librarian of Saint-Malo, set in Nazi-occupied Brittany

Saint-Malo, a picturesque walled seaside port in Brittany, is the setting for Mario Escobar’s newest novel, which focuses on the efforts of a French librarian, Jocelyn Ferrec, to preserve the books in her beloved town during its occupation by the Germans in World War II. Knowing the importance of the written word, but feeling unable to chronicle her experiences for posterity, Jocelyn addresses letters to a famous French author describing the deteriorating situation around her, hoping he’ll transform them into a book for others to read.

It’s an odd concept, and the epistolary format is just one among many aspects of this novel that don’t make sense. The chapters of The Librarian of Saint-Malo are the letters themselves; they read like a traditional narrative, except for occasional, awkwardly inserted references to the addressee (“Marcel Zola,” a novelist the author imagines as a fictional version of Albert Camus).

Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, Jocelyn discovers she’s suffering from tuberculosis, and she’s left alone, in her weakened state, after Antoine leaves to join the fighting. She takes solace in the books of the library where she works and does her best to save them when the Nazis arrive with lists of prohibited literature, intending to destroy whatever they deem subversive. The cruel and lecherous Adolf Bauman, an SS officer, demands lodging in Jocelyn’s home, while another German, Hermann von Choltiz, a medieval literature scholar, tries to protect Jocelyn from his compatriot’s attentions. Jocelyn is touched by his kindness and develops a rapport with him that she isn’t sure she can trust.

Saint-Malo is hauntingly described, with its storied history as a pirate haven contrasting with the traumatic Nazi occupation as neighbors turn on one another, food becomes scarce, and Jews are carted away. The novel’s characters, however, behave in unrealistic ways and have perplexing emotional reactions. In just one early example: Jocelyn sees a horrific event and learns awful news while on an out-of-town trip. That same evening sees her attending a fancy dinner party, in a borrowed gown, feeling that the war was an “ephemeral dream.”

Jocelyn is beyond naïve at times, and her tuberculosis symptoms appear and disappear when it’s convenient for the plot. Hermann is hardly a heroic individual, and the author's attempts to make a Nazi into a sympathetic or even romantic figure simply don’t work. The actions of one Jewish character ring particularly false as well.

The Librarian of Saint-Malo has an intriguing setting and theme, saving literature in a time of war, so it's disappointing that I'm not able to recommend this novel.  

The Librarian of Saint-Malo was published by Thomas Nelson in June. I read it from a NetGalley copy.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book. It sounds so disappointing and I'm sorry to hear that. I was really looking forward to reading it, but just in your review I can see some major mistakes.

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    1. I had high hopes for this novel, and the cover is beautiful, but there are just too many problematic aspects. I didn't want to go into detail on what happens later in the story because of spoilers, but there are some Goodreads reviewers not holding back on the specifics if you're curious.

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  2. I did not agree with the beliefs running through this novel through our main character. The setting and the era was very descriptive though.

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    1. That's a good way of putting it. Thanks for sharing your opinions about it.

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