Friday, March 10, 2023

Book Review: Goodnight from Paris

By Jami Denison

As Americans, we learn history through our own lens. Especially when it comes to the two world wars, we see ourselves as the heroes who saved Europe from the Germans twice. But visiting “the continent” gleans a different impression. Americans were the ones who finally showed up after all other options were exhausted.  Still, there were Americans who advocated getting involved before the bombs started targeting our ships. In Goodnight from Paris, historical fiction author Jane Healey tells the story of one of them: actress Drue Layton.

Well-known in America for starring in the Charlie Chan movies, Drue moved to France when she married a Frenchman, Jacques Tartière. In 1939, with Hitler in Poland and coming ever closer to France, Drue is urged to return to America. With Jacques in Britain as part of the war effort, it seems like a logical decision. Instead, driven by love for her husband and his country, Drue opts to stay in Paris and take a job broadcasting radio programs to America. In the middle of the night, Drue interviews famous Americans such as Dorothy Parker and Josephine Baker, talking to them about the dangers Europe faces, and urging Americans to support Britain and France. It’s a position that angers both the Germans and the Americans, especially as Drue becomes more vociferous about German atrocities. When the Nazis put a price on her head, Drue starts to realize the danger is personal. 

Drue’s story is quite inspiring. As an actress, global politics wasn’t a natural part of her repertoire, but she was willing to use her fame for the greater good. In an early scene, she’s embarrassed when she mistakes world-renowned journalist Dorothy Parker for a secretary, but she never lets these missteps stop her. As the book progresses and the danger increases, so does Drue’s strength of character and determination. 

Healey makes the interesting choice to tell the story in first person, and I’m not sure it was necessarily the best choice for the book. Healey’s voice has a crisp, authoritative style that moves confidently between scenes and subjects. She spends little time deep in her protagonist’s interior world; the fear and grief and anger that Drue experiences throughout the years are described rather than felt. This creates a distance between the protagonist and the reader that is expected in third-person prose, but feels remote in first person. And with Drue being a real person, the choice is even more surprising. 

Still, the story moves at a good clip, covering five years of Drue’s life without ever dragging. Healey knows when to linger on certain events, and which events can be summarized. While Healey takes pains to present nearly all her characters as three-dimensional, sometimes I felt that a few of her portrayals of Nazis were a tad too sympathetic. 

It’s hard to read about the fights in Congress over aid to Ukraine without thinking about similar arguments in the 1930s. What does the world owe migrants fleeing sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East? What does the United States owe refugees from South America? History repeats, and we need books like Goodnight from Paris to remind us of the stakes. 

Thanks to Get Red PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Jane Healey:

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