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Review: The Race for Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton
Harper, 2015. 311 pp. $26

Jane Tyler, a fledgling reporter from a Nashville paper, and Olivia (Liv) Harper, a young photographer from New York, are covering the American army following the D-Day landings in Normandy. Or, rather, they’re trying to, but the prejudice against female journalists prevents them from gaining accreditation to the front lines. So they sweet-talk Fletcher, a British intelligence photographer who happens to be a good friend of Liv’s husband, to drive them through the war zone, against all regulations. Their goal: To get to Paris the moment the city is liberated and score a scoop.

Fletcher’s ability to roam anywhere seems a mite improbable, as does his job, taking pictures of enemy installations that somehow prove of instant use. But no carping, here. Fletcher has always been sweet on Liv; he takes a liking to Jane too, who returns the feeling; and their adventures make for gripping reading. The whole setup offers a terrific opportunity for exploring feminist themes, which Clayton clearly wishes to do. And having recently returned from a hiking trip to Normandy (see my photo, below), I was primed for a story like this.

t's hard to believe that these hills near St.-Martin-de-Sallen were the scene of bloody fighting in August 1944.

It’s hard to believe that these quiet, bucolic hills near St.-Martin-de-Sallen, Normandy, were the scene of bloody fighting in August 1944.

The Race for Paris focuses on the victims of both sides. To that end, Clayton underlines American excesses or mistakes, as with the intentional destruction of St.-Lô, or when friendly fire kills or wounds hundreds of soldiers in their foxholes, an incident that never made the press. We’ve heard so much puffery about the Greatest Generation and the good fight, it’s refreshing to read a novel daring to point out that our boys were human after all. And Clayton excels at depicting the carnage, the waste, the poignancy, in prose that often attains effortless beauty.

Nevertheless, she seems too rigorous in her intent. It’s not just that she can’t make up her mind whether she’s writing historical fiction or history, as when she borrows a well-known quote about St.-Lô and lets her characters hear it, a self-conscious you-are-there moment that undercuts an otherwise touching scene. Nor is it Jane’s startling omniscience, when, out of nowhere, she somehow acquires a theoretical grasp of an immense, fluid battlefront that nobody could have observed through the cracked window of a wandering jeep.

Rather, it’s Jane’s moral omniscience, which comes without a struggle, that absolutely kills this book for me. It’s one thing to view Germans and Allies as victims and see individual circumstance as paramount, but it’s another to make that judgment willfully ignorant of the context. The narrative says nothing about the Occupation, except that it’s “brutal,” or to note that children look painfully thin. Nor does Clayton show collaboration or even mention the Gestapo or the SS–whose crimes right after D-Day were arousing great fury–or the Holocaust. She does drag in a few Jews at the end, but I’m not buying.

I’m not saying Clayton should have had her characters discuss all these things; that would have sounded canned and ruined the narrative. Still, Liv and Jane seem unconscious of what’s happening–and what has happened–around them, which spares them the difficulty of having to make complex choices based on inconvenient facts. It also makes them lousy journalists.

Take, for instance, the moment when they witness the signature cliché of the liberation, a man shaving a woman’s head because she slept with a German. Naturally, Liv and Jane vent their outrage on the man who holds the scissors; Fletcher attempts to stop him, in vain. But he also tries to tell his companions that the scene may be more complicated than they know, that the woman probably informed on her fellow villagers or lived high while they starved. To no surprise, given their role in this novel, Liv and Jane shout him down. He can’t be sure, they say, and in retrospect, they may be right. From the holes historians have punched in the legend of near-universal French resistance, it’s just as likely the hair-cutter was himself a collaborator or simply looking to inflict his righteous hatred on a powerless victim.

But the Americans’ snap judgment, their own self-righteousness in quashing what Fletcher says, belies their job to gather the facts, to understand what they’re snapping pictures of or writing in their dispatches. It’s that comfort in ignorance, the failure even to recognize a wider context, let alone try to grasp it, that turns these potential feminist heroines into dabblers, precisely the perception they’re struggling against. The men who’d deny them access to the battlefront, who resent their presence, disparage their abilities, and assume that their only talent is their physical appearance, would have said, “You see, dear, this is men’s business, and you really do know nothing about it.”

Had the narrative lingered on the shearing scene to explore whether a woman’s lot in war is to pay for men’s mistakes, that would have been a feminist statement. But the author has paced her story too quickly for that, seldom lifting the feminist lens beyond the premise that two young women have crashed a men’s club. I wanted to see Liv and Jane challenge what they might have been taught as girls or hesitate the least little bit about the allegedly masculine role they were choosing. What feminism takes for granted today was much newer and scarier in 1944; the 1960s hadn’t happened yet, but again, the novel feels retrospective, as though all that had gone before. The love triangle with Fletcher offers rich ground for a feminist conundrum, especially what it means to be attracted to a man who is, after all, their savior and guide, the traditional male figure. But Clayton doesn’t go there, leaving us with the same old story. What a shame.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.