1940s, 1950s, anti-Semitism, book review, Ellen Feldman, France, historical fiction, Holocaust, idealized characters, improbable premise, Jews, Manhattan, moral tale, Paris, publishing, shame, teenage exploration
Review: Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman
St. Martin’s, 2020. 347 pp. $18
Ten years after Paris was liberated, Charlotte Foret lives in New York but is still in chains. No one’s threatening her anymore; she has her beloved daughter, Vivi, now fourteen; and a career as an editor at a prestigious publishing house, Gibbon & Field. Her boss, Horace Field, is also her landlord, for the Forets live in his East Side brownstone.
Further, Horace and his wife, Hannah, sponsored Charlotte and Vivi to come to the United States after their internment at Drancy, the camp in the Paris suburbs that was a way-station to Auschwitz. Charlotte loves her job and is grateful for the apartment and the sponsorship, but the arrangement feels more than a little awkward, especially since Hannah, a psychoanalyst, has plenty of parenting advice to give, though she herself is childless.
As the novel opens, these threads threaten to unravel, first via a letter from Bogotá that she can’t bear to read. (Melodramatic, but okay, I’ll bite.) More plausibly, Vivi asks about her heritage, specifically about her father, killed in the war, and what it means to be Jewish.
But Charlotte has always said that it took Hitler to make her a Jew, and she wants no part of such explorations. Charlotte’s so adamant, so resolutely opposed to reflection on or discussion of her past — their past, for Vivi lived through the war too — that you have to wonder whether psychoanalyst Hannah has a point. Charlotte’s not only too tightly wrapped, she’s a lousy mother, forbidding her child to discover her identity. To all and sundry, however, Charlotte says, with truth, You weren’t there, so you don’t know.
Even now, in her dreams, she heard Vivi crying, not the childish whimpers and sobs of temporary discomfort but a shrieking rage born of an empty belly, and chilled-through bones, and the agony of rashes and bites and festering sores. Sometimes the crying in the dream was so loud that it wrenched her awake, and she sprang out of bed before she realized the sound was only in her head.
But Charlotte’s memory of Vivi’s sufferings is by no means the whole truth. Paris Never Leaves You excels as a moral tale, for Charlotte’s secret feels so shameful to her that she believes — with reason — that to confess it would make her a pariah. Specifics here would spoil the suspense; once more, I advise against reading the jacket flap, clever and subtle though it is.
Feldman brings alive Paris under the Occupation, as she does New York publishing, some scenes of which are positively delicious. In Charlotte and Horace, she’s created two memorable characters, and the dialogue between them crackles like a moral duel, full of challenge and riposte. Horace wants, nay, demands that Charlotte think and reflect on who she is and what she believes, and as a result, the novel pushes the reader to do the same. That’s what Paris Never Leaves You has to offer.
But, if you’re like me, you’ll have to overlook several flaws, starting with the bland title, which sounds like the compromise offspring of a deadlocked editorial meeting, and the cover, which says nothing except, “See, here’s the Eiffel Tower, so guess where this story takes place?”
More seriously, a key aspect of Charlotte’s secret seems historically implausible, despite what the author maintains in an afterword. I don’t believe the circumstances permitting the premise could have existed for so long, if at all. And even if you take Feldman at her word, there’s Vivi, who’s too sweet, calm, and reasonable for fourteen, and who bears nary a psychological scratch from her wartime early childhood. No nightmares, no tics, no fears, just perfectly adjusted.
As for psychological thinking, I’m tired of reading about dictatorial, heartless psychoanalysts, especially those who sleep with their analysands. It’s also unnecessary, here. Feldman didn’t have to make Hannah an expert—it takes no letters after your name to know that teenagers are trying to figure out who they are–and Hannah’s involvement in Charlotte’s life, particularly her friendship with Vivi, give her standing to sound off.
It’s also odd that nobody, not even Horace, asks Charlotte how she can feel so intensely about literature, an art that lives within reflection and self-examination, yet refuse to look at herself. To do so, of course, would reveal the exact cause of her shame, and though Feldman derives tension from that secret, Charlotte can’t even think about what she has to hide, or the reader will know. That contrivance makes me ask whether Charlotte could have spelled out the secret in interior narrative early on, which would invite the reader deeper into her dilemma, a more generous approach, and perhaps a more genuine characterization.
Still, I think the moral framework stands out, and Paris Never Leaves You may be worth your time because of it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.