Elise LeClair and Juliette Foulon don’t go to war, but it comes to them, shattering their families and friendship.
Elise and Juliette are young women living in Paris in 1939. Both are Americans married to French husbands and both women are pregnant — they meet in the Bois de Boulogne when Elise has an episode of false labor and Juliette helps her get to a doctor.
Kristin Harmel’s “The Paris Daughter” is her fifth novel in a row set in France during World War II. Harmel, who lives in Orlando, grew up in St. Petersburg and worked as a journalist, at the then-St. Petersburg Times as well as People magazine, then wrote YA and romance novels before hitting her stride, and the bestseller lists, with carefully researched, engagingly written historical novels.
Harmel’s WWII books focus not on the battlefields but on the civilians trying to live around and amid the war. In “The Paris Daughter,” the lives of Elise and Juliette are changed in ways they couldn’t imagine in 1939, when the war had not yet come to France.
The two women bond over their pregnancies, and a warm friendship blooms as Elise spends time with Juliette’s family: rock-steady, doting husband Paul and two young sons, Claude and Alphonse. The Foulons have been touched by sorrow — a daughter died in infancy — but they live happily in an apartment over the charming bookstore that’s the family business.
Elise treasures her time with them because her own marriage is unsteady. Olivier LeClair is a painter, successful and ambitious, on the edges of Picasso’s circle and determined to be inside. Elise, too, was an artist when they met, a sculptor, and at first Olivier was supportive, urging her to switch from clay to wood, a medium that brings out her talents.
But as his fame grows, so does his ego, and Elise has pretty much given up pursuing her art professionally for running the house and worrying about Olivier’s politics, a secret passion for communism that, with the Nazis approaching, grows more dangerous by the day.
Elise and Juliette have their daughters within weeks of each other. The Foulon family is overjoyed with baby Lucie; Olivier is disappointed that little Mathilde is not a son, but Elise is transformed by her love for her child.
But the war darkens every joy. Curfews and blackouts mean Elise can’t take her daughter out to the Bois de Boulogne, her favorite place, to show her the night sky. So she paints the baby’s entire room with a forest mural, complete with twinkling stars overhead. As her husband becomes distant, she draws her daughter closer.
Elise and Juliette are shocked when a Jewish friend, Ruth Levy, who has two young children confides in them that, like so many parents during WWII, she’s sending her kids away from Paris to a safer place, even though she can’t go with them. Unspoken is the possibility that she may never see them again, given that the Nazis are arresting Jews at an accelerating pace.
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Even given that peril, Elise and Juliette tell each other they would never, ever leave their own children, no matter what happens. Then things happen.
One of them must leave her daughter with the other, and only one of those girls will survive. But which one?
Harmel takes the reader through the women’s struggles to live through the war and their terrible losses. Their friendship is just one of the casualties; during the next couple of decades, living on different continents, Elise and Juliette are both haunted by the lengths they went to in order to be good mothers, and whether they went too far.
The plot’s many surprising twists are grounded in persuasive historical settings and events, and Harmel’s fans will find callbacks to some of her other WWII books along the way. As always, she writes movingly about the complex and long-lasting effects of war on everyone touched by it.
The Paris Daughter
By Kristin Harmel
Gallery Books, 384 pages, $28.99
Meet the author
Kristin Harmel will discuss and sign “The Paris Daughter” at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5 for admission or $28.99 for admission and a signed book at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.
Friends and Fiction podcasters and bestselling authors Kristy Woodson Harvey, Kristin Harmel, Mary Kay Andrews and Patti Callahan Henry will discuss and sign their latest books at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20, at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $28.99 for admission and a signed copy of Harvey’s book, “The Summer of Songbirds,” at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.