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REVIEW: The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

Dear Ms. Sheene,

When I received a review copy of this book, I was instantly intrigued – first by the evocative, lovely cover, and then by the back cover blurb, which begins,”May 1940: Fleeing a glamorous Manhattan life built on lies, Claire Harris arrives in Paris with a romantic vision of starting anew.” An interesting and under-used setting is like catnip to me as a reader, and my interest was further piqued by the description of the heroine.

The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn SheeneClaire Stone Harris, nee Clara May Wagner, is living the high life in 1940 Manhattan. She has achieved her dreams of wealth and social position, but, not surprisingly, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Her husband Russell is a brute and her marriage is a loveless sham. When a man from Claire’s past appears in the middle of a party Russell and Claire are throwing (at which Russell has tasked Claire with cozying up to some potentially important German business contacts), she realizes that her carefully constructed house of cards is about to fall. Fearing Russell’s reaction when he learns she’s not actually well-born – he married her for her “name” – Claire packs a bag and flees. (This part of the story wasn’t quite clear to me – Claire supposedly took the identity of a girl who died in infancy, the child of a well-connected family. But if the Stone family was prominent in Manhattan society, wouldn’t it be known that the real Claire had died as a baby? Wouldn’t Claire worry about encountering other Stones? I felt like there were some details missing here.)

Far from being a pampered heiress, Claire/Clara was actually born to a poor Oklahoma farmer; the family’s hardscrabble existence became even harder when the dust storms hit. When Clara’s beloved mother died after a long illness, she had no more use for her old life and she took off with the first man who would take her away (the lout who eventually shows up at her door in Manhattan 10 years later).

After fleeing her husband, Claire impulsively decides to head for Paris, and Laurent, a Frenchman with whom she’d had a brief affair the previous year. Unfortunately, she arrives in conjunction with the invading German army. It wouldn’t have killed her to pick up a newspaper on the trip over, I think.

She does locate Laurent, but he’s not happy to see her. Given the precarious situation in the city, he strongly advises Claire to leave at once. Claire indignantly refuses and insists she will make it on her own in Paris if Laurent doesn’t want her (which I found kind of rich given that Claire, early in the book, is constantly getting lucky breaks and help from strangers). With Laurent is a brusque, enigmatic Englishman, Thomas Grey, whom Claire senses disapproves of her.

One of Claire’s lucky breaks comes when she stumbles upon the flower shop of Madame Palain, who takes Claire in and gives her a job. The flower shop represents the fresh start that Claire desperately needs, as well as being a symbol of the persistence of beauty in Paris amidst such ugliness.

Claire took a while for me to warm up to. I used to feel guilty when I didn’t like highly flawed heroines; after all, I want to read more of these heroines, right? Well, I do, but when a heroine is highly flawed and not particularly charming or funny, what’s to like? Claire is not truly unlikable, for the most part – as a reader I understood why she was the way she was. But at the same time, her cluelessness and her continued longing for material wealth – even after she’s come to recognize the corruption beneath the shiny surface – makes her a bit frustrating.

Eventually the ugliness of German occupation bleeds into Claire’s daily life, and she ends up being recruited by the French Resistance. At first, Claire’s motives are…well, not exactly self-interested, but not entirely selfless. As Claire begins to grow and change, her world of concern expands beyond herself to include Madame Palain and Paris itself. She is still savvy enough, though, to be wary of the danger in what she does. I appreciated that – Claire does not just become a self-sacrifcing heroine overnight. Paris changes her, and the work she does in the flower shop slowly brings her to self-respect and a better understanding of the things that matter in life.

Claire’s espionage work brings her into close contact with Thomas Gray; both he and Claire’s erstwhile lover, Laurent, are part of the Resistance. Gray becomes another catalyst in Claire’s change; she does not necessarily like the person who she believes he sees when he looks at her. The romantic elements are muted in the first half of the book and really only pick up in the second half, when Claire’s activities ramp up, and the stakes become much higher.

I liked the first half of the book reasonably well, with my lack of connection to Claire and some cliched story elements detracting a bit from my enjoyment. I liked the second half quite a lot. Not only does Claire become more relatable, but the pace picks up quite a bit. I don’t usually seek out stories with a lot of action, but I’m always aware of really appreciating those elements in books when I read them. They do keep one turning the pages – as much as I love character-based romances they are easier to put down than books with a lot of tension and danger.

One thing I was conscious of while reading The Last Time I Saw Paris was that I tend to be influenced by echoes of other books or films when I’m reading. What I mean is that if the book I’m reading reminds me in some way of a book I love, that deepens my enjoyment and appreciation of the book. The Last Time I Saw Paris had elements that reminded me of Susan Isaac’s Shining Through (an awesome book with a heroine who has gone undercover in Berlin during the waning days of WWII) and of Paulina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman (one of my fave books ever – the similarity I saw was of people trying to live “normal” lives during war, while under siege or occupation). I was also reminded of Army of Shadows, a really excellent French film from 1969 that depicted the French Resistance. One of the things both that movie and this book share is an honesty about the costs of being a member of the Resistance – while the aims of the group are heroic, their actions at times are brutal and ruthless (though in The Last Time I Saw Paris the ruthlessness is more often threatened than actually carried out). This book does not flinch from showing the cost of war – innocents are killed, and decent people become killers.

Ultimately, in spite of a slightly rocky beginning and some less-than-original elements, The Last Time I Saw Paris was an absorbing and satisfying story. My grade is a B+.

Best regards,
Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

12 Comments

  1. Liz Talley
    May 19, 2011 @ 13:11:29

    I, too, am intrigued by this particular time period. Just something about the evil that persisted at the time, the whole good/bad struggle. Wish for more books written during that particular time, but its a tricky time period to handle. I did LOL on the whole “would it have hurt her to pick up a paper?” comment :)

    Enjoyed the review.

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  2. Jennie
    May 19, 2011 @ 15:36:21

    Glad you liked it! I think the book is worth looking for. I’m guessing that 20th century stories just don’t sell that well? At least if they are marketed as romances? I know that some people are pretty sensitive about reading anything having to do with Nazis.The reality of the Nazi occupation is presented pretty fairly, I think – neither sugarcoated nor sensationalized.

    I was also interested in the notion of French collaborators – there is one in the book that is pretty much a straight villain, but another whose actions are much more enigmatic.

    ReplyReply

  3. REVIEW: The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene | Dear Author | ysilyrukavy
    May 19, 2011 @ 19:23:33

  4. Jayne
    May 20, 2011 @ 04:49:02

    Maybe it reads differently in the book but

    May 1940: Claire Harris arrives in Paris with a romantic vision of starting anew

    made me think this woman isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Even if Germany and the US weren’t at war, France and Germany already were.

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  5. FiaQ
    May 20, 2011 @ 07:52:39

    @Jayne: LOL! My eyebrow raised at that line as well. My favourite bit is this coolly understated line in Jennie’s review:

    It wouldn’t have killed her to pick up a newspaper on the trip over, I think.

    LOL! Honestly, though, I don’t see how Clare could avoid knowing as the Phoney War was heavily covered in newspapers and news reels. There were ‘war is coming!’ posters all over the place including ships. All this for at least a year before Germany successfully invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. Britain was well aware of it as France was only twenty six miles away from its shore.

    I wonder if this novel shows how Clare manages to avoid the Nazis’ attention during her stay, considering how intense they were with paper checks on foreigners while diving Paris into sections during the first year of occupation?

    Also:

    But at the same time, her cluelessness and her continued longing for material wealth – even after she’s come to recognize the corruption beneath the shiny surface – makes her a bit frustrating.

    I find this puzzling. France suffered acute shortages, especially food, so I’m not sure if I understood why she was determined to stay if she had a longing for material wealth. Wouldn’t she rather have a longing for plenty of food, too?

    @Liz Talley: You should check out British fiction if you want to read more WWI- and WWII-era novels. There are loads! Action, romance, family saga, etc.

    I think most popular authors who write heroine-oriented wartime novels (which often contain romantic relationships) are: Katie Flynn, Angela Huth (one of her novels was adapted for the screen: ‘Land Girls’), Helen Dunmore, Charlotte Bingham, Audrey Howard, Jessica Stirling, Josephine Cox, Meg Hutchinson, Helen Forrester, Victoria Pemerton, Sheelagh Kelly, Margaret Mayhew… so many.

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  6. Jayne
    May 20, 2011 @ 08:11:58

    @Liz Talley: Click on the “WWII” tag in Jennie’s review and it will bring up lots of reviews we’ve done on various books in this period.

    ReplyReply

  7. Jayne
    May 20, 2011 @ 08:15:04

    @FiaQ: Oh yeah – great understated humor in that “newspaper” line. But then Jennie does this so well which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading her reviews.

    ReplyReply

  8. REVIEW: The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene | Dear Author | gikysoduc
    May 20, 2011 @ 15:52:17

  9. Jennie
    May 20, 2011 @ 17:32:07

    @FiaQ:To be fair, the reference to Claire longing for the nicer things was in connection to her coming into contact with the German officers and French collaborators. Working in the flower shop, she has an opportunity to make deliveries for various parties (which is what makes her a good recruit for the Resistance). Around the middle of the story, as Claire is really starting to change, she has a push-pull between kind of wanting to melt back into that easy, corrupt life (which she probably could have done; she’s a beautiful woman and easily attracts attention from both the Germans and various Frenchmen who could be of use to her).

    The Claire of early in the book is a weird combination of hardened and naive. I think she has experienced one type of hardship, and she became determined to insulate herself from that life and from poverty. I guess part of the self-insulation was avoiding hearing about the war. It does stretch credulity, but on the other hand Claire is kind of believably self-absorbed.

    As I mentioned in the review, Claire, pre-change, is not that likable a character. But her growth is believable and satisfying.

    @Jayne: Aw, thanks! You made my day!

    ReplyReply

  10. Loreen
    May 22, 2011 @ 02:15:13

    An American in 1940 moves to Paris because she wants a more romantic life? Well, I think I will just up and move to Libya tomorrow because I really want to have a peaceful, luxurious life-style. Or maybe rural Iran…I bet the food is fabulous and I will get a great suntan.
    Seriously – this seems so historically clueless. Is she fluent in French? I think the Nazis would notice if an American woman was wandering around. I am fluent in French and live in Paris and people comment on my accent all the time. I have friends who have lived in France for 10 years and they still cannot “pass” as French once they open their mouths. And even today, when you move to another country you have to show official paperwork all the time. To open a bank account, to rent an apartment, to get health care, even to buy a metro pass…even if she stole a French citizen’s passport, she would have a hard time coming up with enough forged documents to appease the French administration, let alone the Nazis.
    Does the book explain why an American woman is allowed to live and work in France in the middle of the war? How did she get a visa to work? Being “sans papiers” is no picnic, let me assure you.
    I love books about Paris but I am afraid to take a chance on this one unless someone can assure me that the author manages to explain how an American woman blends into Parisian society so well that she is invisible enough to be recruited by the resistance.

    ReplyReply

  11. Jennie
    May 22, 2011 @ 23:20:27

    @Loreen: She gets papers from the Resistance as part of the deal; she’s supposed to be the American wife of a now-dead Frenchman.

    Claire is definitely heedless in her actions early in the book, but she does appear to have some motivation for going to Paris; she is really afraid enough of her husband to flee him, and she has some romantic notions about Laurent and a life with him. It doesn’t quite make sense why she doesn’t seem to think much before heading towards a war, but once she’s in Paris she becomes really attached to the city quickly and that’s her motivation for staying when she could go.

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  12. Edith Brooks
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 20:16:28

    Loreen says it all. I love books on the resistance, especially as it occurred in France but the fact that this author apparently couldn’t afford an editor and has more grammatical mistakes than my 11 year old daughter is disconcerting at best. I’m afraid she tried to make up for her lack of historical knowledge but telling us more than we ever wanted to know about flower arrangements.

    ReplyReply

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