The moral price of survival (Paris pre- and during WWII; Manhattan 1950s): You don’t just read Ellen Feldman’s historical novels. You devour them.
Feldman is an accomplished author of seven historical novels – Paris Never Leaves You, her newest – and an historian. Reading her body of work explains why she won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 to support her art and creativity. Reviews of her earlier novels call them “masterful.” Paris Never Leaves You is no exception. Feldman’s prose and storytelling are so emotionally immersive, it feels as if we’re witnessing history as it’s happening.
The third-person narrator in this novel punctures the assumption that the most intimate voice is the first person. To stay true to the moral angst of the fictional main character – Charlotte Floret – the author/historian knew that what she’d lived through was too unbearable for her to relive in the telling.
What did Charlotte do that was so awful, so compromising of her moral compass, she believed she sold her soul?
Charlotte’s story alternates between the lead-up to and during Hitler’s invasion of Paris, and ten years later after the war in mid-1950s Manhattan where she’s immigrated to. All years haunted and influenced by her conflicted conscience. Hers is a story of doing whatever necessary to protect her daughter Vivi. Survival “never comes with a clear conscience.”
Opening in Charlotte’s 1954 Manhattan office where she’s an editor for a “prestigious publishing house,” she receives an air-mail letter she throws away unopened. She’s received others like it, none opened. Mailed from Columbia, South America, the only thing we’re told, except that somehow it made its “way through the Drancy records” to have found her. Drancy is also referenced in the Prologue, so we assume Charlotte survived a concentration camp. She doesn’t speak about being Jewish, only to repeatedly say “Hitler made me a Jew.” So we assume the soul-killing, unspeakable horrors of the Nazis are why Charlotte cannot tell us her story. It’s more than that.
We’re not just seeing fictionalized lives through an historical lens, but seeing into Charlotte’s ashamed soul, as well as the mysterious letter writer’s anguished soul. The novel never leaves you because it has a powerful and complicated moral soul.
The complexity of moral choices is consistent in both historical timelines, so it feels as if alternating chapters by timeframe is a new literary technique. Of course it isn’t, but you’ll gulp down Charlotte’s Paris survival story as a single-mother protecting her four-year-old daughter Vivi – both of whom saw Nazi brutality up-close – in the same breath as ten years later, when Charlotte and Vivi are living in NYC. Vivi is now fourteen, and while their lives have drastically changed, Charlotte remains vigilant about protecting Vivi. Her secrets, fears, and disturbed conscience are still very much alive. So is anti-Antisemitism. In a pivotal scene, Vivi comes home from her exclusive private school upset and hurt that a classmate reneged a coveted party invitation because her grandmother did not want a Jewish girl there. Vivi is old enough, curious, and persistent to want answers about her religion, her past, her identity. You feel for this lovely, well-behaved young lady who deserves answers. Charlotte knows that, another moral dilemma. Tell truths, or keep hiding them?
Paris Never Leaves You was supposed to be published June 2020. The delay allowed this reviewer to catch up on many of the author’s earlier historical novels. With five read, a few characteristics were noticed:
- Morality is a consistent theme across novels set during different historical periods.
- The historical perspective is different than others we’ve read, or about a slice of history we haven’t.
- Even with plenty of emotionally powerful WWII stories, Paris Never Leaves You differs too, focusing on a character’s (actually two others) struggles with moral consequences, for different reasons.
Charlotte’s tormenting wartime moral decisions were made out of sheer desperation for basic survival needs – food for her wasting-away daughter (and if any leftovers for herself) – and a hunger for human kindness and companionship that upended her righteousness.
Two other examples of how morality plays out differently in two more of the author’s powerhouse books: Terrible Virtue is also a story about a courageous woman who fought and sacrificed, but not for her family or herself but for a cause bigger than her: a woman’s right to control her body. Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, is likely new to us. Her staunch moral convictions were guided by what she knew was righteous despite having to abandon her family, which took a great toll. Charlotte never abandons Vivi, quite the opposite, but she does abandon her moral principles so she and Vivi can live.
Lucy is based on the true story of the triangular relationships between FDR, Eleanor, and Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s young social secretary for whom one of America’s greatest presidents loved and needed during a world crisis. Whatever you think of Lucy’s morals, her actions made a difference in history.
Charlotte’s actions didn’t change history like Margaret’s and Lucy’s, but history changed Charlotte. While hers is not a story of complicity with Nazis like other Parisians, nor joining heroic French resistors to defeat the enemy, but a German soldier is at the heart of her tale. He frequented the Paris bookshop she was managing for her father. (A “leftist publisher,” he fled Paris before the Germans arrived.)
Charlotte is a Sorbonne-educated woman who speaks four languages, ideally suited to takeover the bookshop since she loves books. An added bonus for all bibliophiles, you’ll read about Parisian bookshops from that era, Nazi censorship of books, and Charlotte’s Manhattan publishing world.
Horace Field, the publisher, is her boss. A larger-than-life force despite being wheelchair-bound. They go way back as he was a friend of Charlotte’s father, so he’s taken the role of her protector – professionally and personally. The reader keeps an eye on Horace, as does Charlotte, having been introduced to a “certain loucheness lurking behind the scenes” at this publishing house. Just as the morality theme is complicated, so is Horace. His fighting, survivalist soul is mixed in here too, dramatically.
Horace doesn’t just find a workplace fit for Charlotte when she arrives in America, he also owns a four-story brownstone where Charlotte and Vivi live on the top floor. Horace’s wife, Hannah, is a thorny but dedicated psychoanalyst who sees patients in their home. Childless, she becomes a devoted mother-figure for Vivi when Charlotte is still working and Vivi comes home from school.
Hannah’s psychological training eggs Vivi on to find out about what she’s been questioning. Who was her father? What’s it feel like to be a Jew?
Charlotte has told Vivi nothing about her father, not even his name or picture. All she knows is that he was killed in the war. Likewise, as noted, she doesn’t know anything about the Jewish religion. Hannah believes unlocking those secrets is fundamental to Vivi’s identity development. More entangled relationships, more moral conflicts. And suspense.
Feldman is a master at controlling the intensity and mystery of the plot. She unfolds it bit by bit, at first subtly, then louder, then screaming. The pace echoes Hitler’s rising hold on Paris. It also reflects the build-up of emotions in Manhattan relationships, and another recurring theme: trust.
By the time the novel comes full circle, the identity of the mystery letter writer is revealed. You may have suspected who the writer was, but the letter’s contents will still catch you off guard. Paris Never Leaves You is the work of a master at the top of her game.