Book: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff (2019)
Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany
Age/Genre: Historical Fiction (May be appropriate for some mature teenagers)
Preferred Reading Environment: In your favorite cafe
Reading Accoutrements: Coffee
Content Notes: Sexism, War, Death, Torture, Racism (Typical WWII novel stuff)
Bethany: I wanted a change of pace from the books I’d been reading recently, and The Lost Girls of Paris was on our “Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2019” list, so I made Jeriann get herself a copy and here we are!
The Lost Girls of Paris is a fictional account of a woman’s division of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Britain during WWII. In the first 3 chapters, we are introduced to our main characters: Grace, Eleanor, and Marie. Each chapter throughout the book follows one of these women.
Grace is a widow living in New York in 1946, helping a small law firm assist immigrants during the post-war chaos. She has floundered finding meaning in her life in the year since her husband died. When we meet her, she is running late for work because of a scandalous one-night-stand with Mark, a friend of her deceased husband. That relationship develops throughout the book, as Mark helps Grace solve the mystery of the intriguing briefcase she found in Grand Central Station, labelled “Trigg” and containing photos of 12 young women.
Eleanor Trigg is a Polish immigrant living in London in 1943 and working as an assistant to the Director of SOE. She has skills in espionage that the Director respects and he asks for her opinion regularly – although usually behind closed doors as there are others in SOE who distrust her because of her immigrant status and her gender. When several of SOE’s sabateurs are captured in France, it is Eleanor who suggests that female agents are the answer: men in France are so scarce because of the war, so strange men entering a small town are immediately suspicious. She is put in charge of the women’s division of SOE and begins to put together training and recruitment across England.
Bethany: Eleanor is a pretty badass lady who cares a lot about the lives she is risking with each mission overseas. My only complaint is that she is surprisingly naive about the inner-workings of governments – especially during wartime. She believes that the lives of any agents that could be saved, should be saved, while the agency she works for is of a more “win at any cost” mentality.
Jeriann: I was also frustrated with Eleanor’s naivete, but I think it tied in with the theme that people during the war were forced to make less-than-ideal decisions in order to fight for what they believed in. Eleanor wanted to trust the system because she worked within it, and she wanted to believe she was working for the greater good. I thought a big message that could be taken from this book is that there are no winners in war, except for possibly the people making money off of it.
Marie is a single mother in 1944. She sent her daughter, Tess, to live with an aunt/cousin during the Blitz and continued living and working in London in order to make enough money to pay for upkeep on their house and Tess’s care. Her skeevy (ex)husband took her inheritance and ran off when Marie had Tess, so Marie pretends her husband died in the war and works hard to ensure that Tess will have a good life. When Marie is approached by a recruiter for SOE because of her ability to speak French fluently, she is not sure whether she is interested in the position – until they tell her how much money she will be making. The sum they promise is enough to keep her daughter living comfortably and their run-down house from falling around their ears, so Marie accepts the job and heads immediately to training in Scotland.
Bethany: Both Grace and Marie were completely unaware of their own inner strengths, which tended to give them “victim voices” at the beginning of the book. You could almost hear their inner monologues: “Why is this happening to me? Why does this have to be so hard?” They made me very irritated for the first several chapters, and I kept having to put the book down and walk away for a few minutes before I could keep reading.
Jeriann: I actually really liked how Eleanor, who already has a strong sense of self but still has to deal with the realities of being a woman in a very openly chauvinistic world is juxtaposed with Marie and Grace, who have to find themselves during the events of the book. But, I did think that Marie and Grace both fulfilled a lot of the same functions in the story. I feel like following an SOE girl with different personality traits than Grace, with a less similar backstory, would have led to a more well-rounded story.
The plot of Lost Girls spans several years and Jenoff switches back and forth along the timeline from chapter to chapter.
Bethany: At first, it was frustrating to try to figure out what was happening when because I kept forgetting to check the year at the beginning of each chapter.
Jeriann: Once the timeline became clear, the overall trajectory of the book became really predictable. Most, if not all the SOE “girls” in the photographs are going to be dead by the time we get to the end, as foreshadowed by the title: The Lost Girls of Paris. Eleanor’s fate is also revealed very early on, though I thought the circumstances of her death lacked the punch it could have had. I feel like there were too many bad luck encounters. In fact, there are mentions of no less than three car accidents that kill people in this book about WWII. With Grace’s plotline, the idea that a random death during a war can seem meaningless and causes unique pains is explored. But the others just make me think that the author uses chance car accidents to off the characters who she’s done with.
Bethany: I was pretty impressed with the way Jenoff presented realistic women in the 1940s. While all of the female characters in the book had struggles in their past, they all handled them differently. Marie, whose father was an abusive dipshit, married a different kind of dipshit to get away from him. Grace, whose husband dies, is going through the grieving process and working hard to find her independence in a time when women were expected to depend on men. Trigg, an immigrant from a war-torn country, is simply trying to assert her knowledge for the benefit of a cause she believes in while fighting the patriarchy to do so. They’re all trying to be their own women in a time when women were supposed to be defined by the men in their lives.
Jeriann: The side characters also help illustrate that women aren’t a monolith, but people who react to and deal with hardships in varied ways. In fact, all of the characters seem very human. Though women and their societal hardships are focused on, men aren’t villfied. There are lots of men in the periphery who are sexist toward our characters, but most of the men in the forefront are kind or at least respectful. I also loved how Eleanor used the success she had encountered to help other women.
Overall, we thought this was an enjoyable, if not overly memorable, exploration of women in the 1940s. The SOE was a real organization, though all the characters and specific events are fictionalized. There was enough of a blend of reality and fiction to make this intriguing, though a lot of the details aren’t new to anyone who’s read more than a couple WWII novels.
Do you have a favorite WWII historical fiction novel? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!