The Lost Girls of Paris
All warfare is based on deception.
That is what Sun Tzu said in The Art of War. In The Lost Girls of Paris, we learn that deception can carry a high price.
New York, 1946. When an accident blocks her usual route to work one morning, Grace Healey is forced to cut through the bustling concourse of Grand Central station, somewhere she normally actively avoids. In her hurry, she fails to notice the corner of an abandoned suitcase sticking out from under a bench and trips over it; telling herself she’s merely looking for information about the owner, Grace surreptitiously opens the case and is surprised to find it contains dozens of photographs, each one of a different woman. Jolted from her inspection by the sound of sirens outside and feeling guilty for being nosy, Grace tries to put the pictures back – and when that proves impossible, shoves them into her purse and hurries away, once more intent on getting to work.
Later that evening Grace learns that the suitcase and the accident which forced her to race through Grand Central are related. The woman who owned the luggage – British citizen Eleanor Trigg – was killed in the crash that had blocked Grace’s way to work. Heading to the British embassy in the hopes of connecting with Eleanor’s next of kin, Grace instead finds a conundrum. Everyone seems unhelpful except those who seem conniving. Caught between the possible options of handing the pictures to someone who will simply shove them in a drawer or giving them to those who seem nefarious, Grace takes them home and launches her own investigation into what exactly happened to Eleanor – and why.
Moving back and forth in time between 1944 and 1946, the narrative establishes both Eleanor and Grace as independent young women trying to find their place in the world. The strong, driven Eleanor has a harder time of this since she is not just looking for a place but a place of power, a position which fully utilizes her strengths and talents. She finds it in 1944 at SOE (Special Operations Executive), a British WWII initiative which specializes in espionage. Initially, Eleanor becomes indispensable to the Director as an aide but when male agents in France begin to stand out simply for being civilians at a time when most men are in service, Eleanor proposes and receives permission to head a women’s unit. Eleanor was excited about “her girls” and the good she knows they will do for the war effort. Until something strange starts to happen. Something which just might jeopardize the very lives of the young women Eleanor has sent into war torn, Nazi held Paris.
Grace has always been the good girl, the obedient daughter and loving wife, but after her husband’s death she seizes the opportunity to finally gain a small bit of independence. Living on her own in glamorous post-war New York, she works at a law office helping refugees from the conflict to build new lives. It can be a heartbreaking effort but it’s also deeply rewarding. Because resolving problems has become second nature to her, she finds herself picking up the puzzle of Eleanor with ease, determined to bring justice to whatever odd situation surrounds the mysterious woman. She’s aided in the endeavor by Mark, an old acquaintance who has recently taken up a new position in her life. The ladies are in many ways two sides of the same coin but Grace is the kinder, gentler version of Eleanor. She is every bit as smart, focused, dedicated, driven and morally pure but she has a warmth and liveliness that her British counterpart lacks.
A third character, Marie, one of Eleanor’s ‘girls’, weaves in and out of the story, giving us a brief glimpse into the espionage work being done in the France of 1944. Marie is a fully realized character, a young woman with a daughter and complex romantic background who finds herself falling in love in the least likely of places at a most inconvenient time. While we are given a thorough understanding of who she is, her storyline is one of the weakest points in the narrative because we get only brief glimpses of what she is doing. Her job – espionage – is crucial to both the war effort and our tale, but the scenes we are shown of her doing said work are more baffling than enlightening. They simply don’t make sense in either the context of history or our narrative.
As a result of that and some issues with the resolution of the mystery, I felt the story never coalesced into a truly satisfying whole. The Lost Girls of Paris is a good read but it had a great, truly intriguing premise that it never quite lived up to. Fans of the author and lovers of the era will probably want to give this a read but newcomers to WWII fiction or Ms. Jenoff’s work will want to check her back list, which contains several stronger novels.