May 19 2011
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.
Claire 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+.