Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Lost Girls of Paris - Pam Jenoff

After reading three novels by Pam Jenoff, I’ve rather reluctantly come to the conclusion that the author is a romance novelist disguised as a writer of historical fiction. That kind of thing is far enough from my reading tastes that I’m not sure why it took me this long to figure it out. The romance around which The Winter Guest is built is integral to the plot, so I never wondered why it was there. But in rereading my 2011 review of The Things We Cherish, I see that the romance in the “present day” section of the novel struck me as a waste of precious pages that could have been far better used to advance her core plot. And now, there’s The Lost Girls of Paris, a novel that has an implausible romance as a key element of its 1944 section and an equally silly one in its 1946 section. 

But that’s hardly my main problem with Lost Girls. No, this one commits what I consider to be the mortal sin of novelists: Instead of showing me what happens in the book’s climax, Jenoff tells me what happened– all in a brief recap.  A build-up of over 350 pages suddenly comes to a screeching halt in the book’s last two or three pages; that’s just not right, and I still feel cheated. 

So, what’s The Lost Girls of Paris about? Well, it does have the kind of plot that could have resulted in an excellent piece of historical fiction. Grace Healey, a young woman  late for work, stumbles upon a lost suitcase in 1946 Grand Central Station. She knows she shouldn’t do it, but Grace indulges her curiosity long enough to open the suitcase for a quick look – and then walks away with the photographs of twelve young women she found inside.

Pam Jenoff
Grace, who lost her husband in an accident shortly before he was to be deployed to his WWII duty station, feels a kinship with this group of women that she can’t explain to herself. But it is only when she figures out who the suitcase belongs to, and that the twelve women were all deployed out of London into Occupied Europe to help prepare France for the Allied invasion, that Grace realizes that she will not be able to rest until she figures out what happened to the women in the pictures. And what she learns is not pretty.

The Lost Girls of Paris follows a familiar pattern for Pam Jenoff novels in that it simultaneously tells two stories set a few years apart through the viewpoints of multiple characters. This time, one of the plots runs through 1944 and the other occurs in 1946, and there are three distinct narrators (Grace; the woman who lost the suitcase; and one of the women whose picture is found in the suitcase). It is an interesting enough book to make me want to learn more about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) authorized by Churchill and the men and women sent behind enemy lines to sabotage and otherwise subvert Germany’s attempt to conquer the world. That’s something I want to learn more about even though (or maybe, especially because) the novel’s characters are so poorly developed that they never quite seem like real people in real danger. I'm disappointed because this one could/should have been so much better than it is.

6 comments:

  1. I read what seemed to be a romance disguised as historical fiction last year- One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus. Kind of hilarious I didn't realize it was a "bodice ripper" until another reviewer pointed it out.

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    1. I know there's a huge market for those things, but I hate to get suckered into one of them and not realize until I've already read a third or more of the book. There's also a whole bunch of romance novels disguised as time travel novels (time travel stories are one of my guilty pleasures), and I've been fooled by several of them, too. So, I guess it's my own fault.

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  2. This is just what a review should be! Well written, good case presented well. I'm leery of historical fiction anyhow. I much prefer a nonfiction story than one with real people in a fictional book.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Nan. This one must have irritated me more than I even realized while reading it. It all seemed to come out in the review.

      Really well-written historical fiction is wonderful and a painless history lesson because of what you can learn about the times and the setting, but they are pretty rare in a market dominated by fluff. And that's a shame.

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  3. I'd be mad about being given a recap instead of a real ending, too. Nothing like a bad ending to ruin a whole book.

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    1. Those "tell, don't show" endings are the WORST thing an author can do, especially in a book of more than 300 pages. I really lose it when that happens to me - but you don't dare read the ending first, so by the time it happens, it's too late to avoid it.

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