This reading group guide for The Paris Library includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a conversation with the author. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
Join our mailing list!
Get our latest staff recommendations, award news and digital catalog links right to your inbox.
In The Paris Library
, inspired by the true story of librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II, two young women come of age under very difference circumstances—one in occupied Paris and one in rural Montana some forty years later.
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet has it all: her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved Library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by an air of mystery about her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.Discussion Questions
1. Chapter 1 begins with Odile noting that “numbers floated round my head like stars” (3) as she runs through the Dewey Decimal system in her head. What does this opening say about her?
2. When Odile is first introduced as Mrs. Gustafson, Lily notes that she “donned her Sunday best—a pleated skirt and high heels—just to take out the trash. A red belt showed off her waist. Always.” (10) What does the red belt represent? And why, at the end of the novel, does she replace “her tatty red belt with a stylish black one”? (344)
3. Miss Reeder “was adamant that there was a place here for everyone” (3) at the Library. How do she and others like Boris and the Countess prove that throughout the Occupation?
4. Odile and Lily come from very different backgrounds, different countries, and different eras. Where do they find common ground?
5. Among the Library’s subscribers and habitués are many fascinating and eccentric characters, such as Professor Cohen and Mr. Pryce-Jones. Who is your favorite, and why?
6. Consider Odile’s Aunt Caroline, and how Caro’s experience informs Odile’s decisions regarding Paul and Buck. Do you believe Odile’s assertion that her mother would “cast me out, just like Aunt Caro”? (332)
7. Why do you think Janet Skeslien Charles decided to interweave Lily’s story, set in Montana in the 1980s, with Odile’s story in Paris during World War II? What do the dual narratives reveal, and how do they reflect on each other?
8. How is Lily’s adolescence in Montana similar to Odile’s own coming of age in Paris? How do books and learning the French language serve as a refuge for Lily?
9. Odile refers to Bitsi as her “bookmate” (50) and later reflects on their experiences by noting that “coming face-to-face with Bitsi is like looking in the mirror” (166). How does their friendship develop over the course of the novel?
10. When Professor Cohen finishes her manuscript, she knows she cannot publish it, and she entrusts it to Odile, saying, “Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive. Without you, I couldn’t have continued this long. You’ve reminded me that there’s good in the world” (240). What does this speech mean to you? Does this serve as greater motivation for Odile to continue her work?
11. Odile discovers the “crow letters,” letters and “denunciations . . . from black-hearted people who spy on neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Even family members” (283) in her father’s office. Lily, too, finds the letters at Odile’s house. What do these letters, signed by “one who knows,” show? Why do you think the author includes them?
12. Toward the end of the novel, after the Liberation, we see the insidious cycle of violence as Paul and his colleagues attack Margaret, stating, “She wasn’t a woman to them, not anymore. They’d been beaten and humiliated. Now it was their turn to beat, to strike, to slash” (312). How does this event change the course of the novel? How do these men perpetuate the cycle of violence? Would you have reacted as Odile does, or what would you have done differently?
13. At the end of the novel, Odile says that “it seemed that life had offered me an epilogue” (342). How does Lily and Odile’s intergenerational friendship provide them both with a safe place to grow?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the website of the American Library in Paris, celebrating its centennial in 2020, to learn more about the Library, its programs, and its history: americanlibraryinparis.org.
2. Get out a map of Paris and locate places mentioned in the book, including rue de Rome, Saint-Augustin church, Le Bristol, and 23 rue Blanche.
3. Odile’s love of literature is infectious, and The Paris Library
is sprinkled with references and quotes from her favorite books, including Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment
, and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
and Jane Eyre
. Share your favorite lines from your own favorite books.
4. Visit the author’s website at jskesliencharles.com to learn more about Janet Skeslien Charles’s work and the book.Author Q&A 1. You worked as the programs manager at the American Library in Paris. In the Author’s Note you thank several people who helped with the inspiration and research of this novel. What led you to write this story in particular?
I love the Library and wanted to share the story of the incredible staff who stayed during the war in order to help others because they believed in the importance of community and in books as bridges.
There were themes that I wanted to explore as well. What does it mean to say you are sorry or to show you are sorry? Today, instead of issuing a real apology when we hurt someone, we may say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” We all make mistakes. How we take responsibility for our words and actions reveals who we are. Odile takes responsibility for her actions and shows she is sorry.
One of the most important elements of the novel is the transmission of stories and memories. In Lily’s graduation speech, she remembers her parents and shares their wisdom with the audience. She also quotes people from Odile’s past, from Paul to Professor Cohen, from Miss Reeder to Monsieur de Nerciat. They live on through Lily. I like to think that we can keep loved ones alive through memory, by sharing pieces of them.2. The love of literature and reading contained here is infectious. What inspired you to write a novel about books? What are some of your favorite books?
Books are my best friends. I especially love rereading novels and finding new insights and ideas. The books stay the same, but we readers evolve. When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God
as a teen, I only saw the love story and how Janie refused to settle. A second reading underscored that the friendship between Janie and Pheoby is the most important relationship of the book. With another reading, I am in awe of Zora Neale Hurston’s prose, so I read slowly to savor her talent. I appreciate the anthropological heritage that the author has created for generations to come, as well as the universal truth that we can’t protect the people we love, and we can’t make their choices or live their lives.
I love the power of Good Morning, Midnight
. The way that Jean Rhys describes loneliness, desperation, feeling judged, and being in danger. She, too, is magnificent, and was ahead of her time. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto
is a masterpiece.3. What was the hardest scene to write? What was the easiest?
The most challenging scenes for me were the ones with Miss Reeder, Boris, and the Countess. I wanted their words to bring them back to life, but also worried about putting the wrong words in their mouths. I was reassured to receive a note from Boris’s son, who wrote that I’d captured his father.
The easiest were the descriptions of small-town Montana. I miss it when I am not there, and hope that I conveyed the beauty and kindness of the people—for example, how the ladies came together to prepare food for the funeral without being asked. They’d lived through hard times, and wanted to makes these difficult moments easier for others.4. Throughout the novel, characters are put in difficult situations, forced to disobey superiors, or act in opposition to their values—such as Margaret with Felix, Dr. Fuchs with the ALP, and Paul with Professor Cohen. What drew you to these moral dissonances?
We like to think we know how we will react in certain situations. We think, “I would never do that or be like that,” when in fact we simply cannot know. And, likewise, people surprise us. Odile and Monsieur de Nerciat discuss the importance of putting oneself in another’s skin (or shoes) and trying not to judge. I have a lot of empathy for these characters and the tough decisions they needed to make. Paul in particular had a hard time of it, torn between his love of Odile and his respect for her father, between following orders and following what he knew to be right. In real life, people are often bewildering. Fiction offers the opportunity of an inner glimpse, to understand a character’s thought process. Paul becomes violent, and, step by step, we can pinpoint why.5. The climax of the novel is Odile’s betrayal of Margaret, which she does mostly unwittingly, and which has ramifications for the rest of Odile’s life. In many ways, this novel is about both the power of friendship and of community. Why did you choose this moment?
For me, this scene was about the small moments that accumulated and overwhelmed Odile. If Odile had been able to tell Margaret from the beginning when Margaret hurt her feelings or upset her, this explosion of resentment never would have happened. But Odile was not able to admit how she felt when Margaret said thoughtless things. Because Odile could not be forthright when Margaret hurt her feelings, Margaret never knew of Odile’s resentment, and Margaret herself never had the opportunity to change how she thought and spoke. This situation in the book is very specific, but speaks to a general trend. These conversations, where we must tell people when we are uncomfortable or upset, are challenging. Many people today would rather cut off relatives and friends completely than express how they actually feel. We tend to bottle our feelings and then come to a breaking point. And then the fabric of community tears more. I hope this book will help us mend it.6. Although you are originally from Montana, you’ve lived in Paris for a number of years. What are some of the most surprising aspects of living in, or between, two countries? How has your experience as an expat influenced your world view?
For me, the biggest difference isn’t between France and the United States, but between the city and the country. Like Lily, I longed to escape the quiet countryside. I resented small-town life. Now I’m grateful for my roots, for my parents and grandmother who shared their love of reading, for the librarians who not only created a safe haven but also recommended books that put my feelings into words and showed me that I wasn’t alone. Now I return to Montana, to my roots, with a sense of gratitude. I love spending time with my family and my teachers and librarians, who have become dear friends.
Both of my novels are about culture shock and remaking a life for oneself in a new place—situations I know well. Before I came to Paris, I was a teacher. My foreign degree wasn’t recognized in France, and I had to start over. I’m interested in the clash of cultures, and coming of age (at any age), as well as the elements that make us who we are—friends and family, first loves and favorite authors. I want to show the effect that we have on each other, how we hinder and help each other, and how we carry our loved ones with us (whether we want to or not). I could not have written my novels if I had stayed in one place. I needed to feel the distance, the longing, the sadness, the homesickness to write my characters.7. What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
That communication is key. It’s important to learn how to talk about our feelings before they overwhelm us. Libraries are key. This book is a love letter to libraries and librarians. In this digital age, our libraries—our third space, our sanctuary, our source of facts in a fake-news world—are more vital than ever. We need these havens of stories and imagination. The Paris Library
is a reminder that we must appreciate and support these vital community centers.8. What are you working on next?
This was a challenging book to research. I spent nearly ten years in one of the darkest periods in history, reading “crow letters” in archives and watching footage of women having their heads shorn in public. When I took breaks from the novel, I researched other librarians and other countries. I am hoping to tell you more about these projects soon.