The Paris Apartment is a compelling story told in dual timelines. The first is 1938 – 1942 during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and the second is 2017 in Paris and England after an apartment, unseen since World War II, is opened and its contents create more questions than answers.
It’s 2017 and Aurelia (Lia) Leclaire has just inherited a Paris apartment from her grandmother, Estelle Allard, an apartment which she – and indeed no-one – knew about before the reading of Estelle’s will. When Lia opens the apartment door, she is stunned to find it untouched and full of art and other treasures. The art is obviously expensive and the gowns of the highest fashion; one of them is draped across the bed, as if the owner just stepped out of it. What is even more disturbing though, is the presence of the photograph of a Nazi officer and a thank you note from Hermann Goring. Lia can’t help but wonder if her grandmother was a Nazi sympathizer. She worries that the art was stolen by the Nazis and contacts Gabriel Seymour, a renowned art restorer and collector, to help her solve the art mystery.
It’s 1940 and Estelle Allard is doing her best to survive in Nazi-occupied France while surreptitiously helping the Resistance. She sings at the Ritz, now occupied by the Nazis, and quietly listens for information to pass on to the Allies. She has no idea whether her latest find – some sort of machine in a secret chamber off Goring’s room – means anything, but she hopes the little she can do makes a difference.
Sophie Seymour lost her husband during the bombing of Poland. Against the odds, after thirteen months of sneaking through Nazi-occupied territory, she safely returns to England and assists the war effort translating German messages at Bletchley Park. Her skill with languages and her impressive return to England capture the attention of her superiors and soon she is sent to Paris to determine if the machine in the Ritz, casually mentioned in the reports from Paris, is the message coder the Allies have been searching for.
The chapters in The Paris Apartment are narrated by Lia, Gabriel, Estelle, or Sophie. From the first, we are dropped right into the action and the journey continues at a fast pace all the way to the last word. I ended up keeping notes on each chapter so I could easily switch between the time periods and narrators. All of the stories are woven together in brilliant ways and it was riveting to go back and forth between the tales. I felt as though I was exploring a dark passageway, shining a light into the next room, and then noticing a sound further on and following that.
Estelle and Sophie are both amazing women – the stars of the book. Estelle’s need to do something – anything – to save her friends and neighbors is heart-wrenching. And Sophie’s passion and fervor to make a difference, to make her life count is palpable. When their stories finally intersected I was completely unable to set the book down.
I also enjoyed Lia and Gabriel’s story and how their modern-day lives entwined with Estelle and Sophie’s. There is a pleasing, sweet romance between Lia and Gabriel but the main part of their story is one of discovery – of each other, their shared history, and themselves.
Ms. Bowen does a wonderful job building the story to an intense and believable climax – and then she gently weaves the loose ends together, with everything falling into place in a wonderfully satisfying manner. As with any story set during World War II, this is not always an easy read – it was a terrible time to be in Paris. Ms. Bowen’s story doesn’t gloss over those hardships but she does show us the courage of the French civilians and how beauty and love can shine through the dark times.
The Paris Apartment was inspired by the true story of an apartment in Paris being opened in 2018 for the first time since right before the Nazi occupation of the city. Ms. Bowen has taken this inspiration and crafted a beautiful, poignant tale of loss, courage, and love. Highly recommended!
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