The Last Hours in Paris by Ruth Druart is a different kind of Second World War romance. At times it is a tough read, the hatred is visceral and uncompromising. It feels real. This is the story of three people in the last days of occupied Paris and the years following when repercussions continued and the war, though never spoken of, remained tangled in the roots of daily life. Those who fought the Germans, those who stayed behind and lived under German dictatorship. In peacetime everyone must live alongside each other again. The different memories, experiences, losses, are difficult to assimilate.
In Paris 1944 Élise Chevalier a bank clerk by day, secretly helps to smuggle Jewish children from the city. ‘Paris was no longer Paris. It was an occupied city, and even the buildings seemed to be holding their breath, waiting.’ No longer her familiar city, Paris is sinister, threatening, frightening. One day in her favourite bookshop Élise is threatened by two French policemen and is defended by another customer, a German soldier. And so begins the story of Élise and Sébastian Kleinhaus and the terrifying, impossible time in which they live.
In 1963 in rural Brittany, eighteen-year old Joséphine Chevalier uncovers a story about her mother that she could never have imagined. She fears it is impossible to truly know someone. ‘From now on, she’ll always be wondering what part of themselves people are hiding.’
A slow burn to start, Druart takes her time, allowing us to feel connected to the characters as she gradually raises the emotional temperature. The peripheral characters are well drawn, particularly Élise’s younger sister Isabelle, bookshop owner Monsieur le Bolzec and Breton farmer Soizic. Each brings their own experience, judgement and dignity to what is an impossible, unbearable situation for everyone. The definition of family and home, love, protection and separation. ‘Maybe home wasn’t a place at all, but the people you wanted to be with.’
Whatever you may think of what happened in Paris at this time, Druart tells this sensitive story of young people, inexperienced, naive and hopeful, living in a time of such violence and betrayal, of secrets, survival, moralising and vengeance. After surviving the hardships, violence and deprivations of war, how can they adapt to find a new life of possibilities. How can they forgive the secrets and betrayals and move on.
A strongly emotional interpretation of life in occupied Paris that is hardly an obvious setting for a story about love. But this is a love more than romance. It is a love of family, responsibility, truth, sacrifice, forgiveness, of letting go of past hurts and wrongs and looking to the future.
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Click the title to read my review of WHILE PARIS SLEPT, another World War Two story by Ruth Druart.
If you like this, try:-
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
‘The Book of Lies’ by Mark Horlock
‘After the Bombing’ by Clare Morrall
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THE LAST HOURS IN PARIS by Ruth Druart #bookreview https://wp.me/p2ZHJe-5T2 via @SandraDanby