Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Book Review: The Paris Showroom

By Jami Denison

 “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a Communist…” Thus begins one of the most well-known laments after World War II, a poem that ends “… and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” 

Juliet Blackwell’s latest novel, The Paris Showroom, is about a lesser-known chapter of World War II—that Nazis ran prison camps right in the heart of Paris, hiding them from the citizens who lived there.  The book takes us into a France that’s divided among French loyalists, German collaborators, innocent victims, and those who tried to look away from it all.

Capucine Benoit and her father Bruno run a fan-making business in the heart of Paris, working with top designers to dress the rich women of the city. A widow, Capucine is estranged from her daughter Mathilde, who lives in the suburbs with her wealthy conservative grandparents. But German occupation has hit the Benoits’ business hard, and when Bruno is outed as a communist, they’re both arrested. Bruno is sent out of the country, but Capucine’s design knowledge gets her sent to a little-known prison camp within the Lévitan department store. There, along with Jewish people married to Aryans and others with special artistic skills, Capucine sorts through confiscated furniture, art, rugs, dishes, and other luxurious items so that high-ranking German soldiers can furnish the apartments where they live with their French mistresses. This job brings her in touch with myriad people who populate Paris during the war: The French guards and drivers keeping the prisoners in line. The German soldiers whom they report to. The French girlfriends. And, of course, the other prisoners.

Meanwhile, Mathilde is twenty-one and hasn’t talked to her mother in years. According to her grandparents, her mother is a wild woman who had behaved shamefully, hanging out in jazz clubs all night and dating inappropriate men. Seeming younger than her years, Mathilde finally begins to grow up when she discovers her childhood best friend is working for the French Resistance. As Mathilde starts to question everything her grandparents have told her, she longs to reconnect with her mother.

The Paris Showroom features characters I hadn’t seen in other World War II fiction I’ve read. Capucine, who lived her life as a bit of a hedonist before the war, was so ignorant of the people around her that she had to ask her fellow prisoners to explain Passover. Both Capucine and Mathilde have friends who become involved with Nazis. And others, while not collaborators, make compromises every day to ensure their own survival. 

The most extraordinary heroes of the war are off-screen in this book. And for me, that made The Paris Showroom almost more accessible than other books of the period. Capucine and Mathilde are not breathtakingly brave. They did not speak out when the Germans first came; they are frightened by the smallest of rebellious acts. And yet they do act, and it’s those small acts that add up to the big victories. While Capucine does what she needs to do to survive, Mathilde’s character arc is particularly gratifying. 

The narrative encompasses the end of the war, and the scenes where French resistance fighters chased German occupiers out of Paris were extremely rewarding. (Although Blackwell breaks out of the close point-of-view she’d used throughout the book to give a wider lens to these events, losing some emotion in the process). With similar scenes happening today in Ukraine, one can hope that the world has learned some lessons from World War II. They came for the Ukrainians, and everyone spoke out. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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