Something a little bit different this week – I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do it tends to be goal-focused, helping towards goals or experiences I’ve had. But I’ve always had a fascination with the second world war, and coupled with my Francophile tendencies this seemed like a perfect fit. Les Parisiennes tells largely the stories of the women who stayed in Nazi-occupied Paris, and those that managed to epitomise the “Parisienne” ideal in times where this was anything but easy.
Sebba covers a large span of time over the course of the book – while the focus is on wartime occupied Paris, she often mentions events that have led the women in her book to make the choices that they do. Stories of late-night marriages as men head off to war, dreams unfulfilled as the world as they knew it stopped, difficult choices made as options became limited. It’s an insightful look at the human condition and what we do to survive – and what survival means to different people.
If I had one complaint it would be that in the breadth of covering these stories, there is not often the amount of depth I would like about some of the more intriguing characters. While I understand the author’s choice in showing how a cross-section of society functioned in a time of war, I often felt like she was dropping tasty little bits of bait that hooked me with no large reward.
Sebba is a careful curator with her words, mixing her own tales with the quotes of her subjects to bring situations to life. Very early on in the book she tells a story of Janet Teisser du Cros escaping Paris with her young son on an open cattle truck who notices the style and composure of another female passenger:
She was like a breath from Paris. Though she sat on the floor with us she never lost her air of neat elegance and the sight of her struck guilt into my soul; for it reminded me that I had been taking advantage of circumstances to let my standards down, an unpardonable thing in France.
My goodness, that stuck in my mind. In times of struggle it is so easy to let things fall apart but what a powerful choice to keep it together with your head held high. Be the class amongst the muck.