The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 November 2016

Paris Noire

by Francine Thomas Howard

What happened in Paris in the days after the Allied liberation of 1944? How does a city wake up from a seige of four years? How do people reconnect and reach out to each other given a time of fear and suspicion? Who are the heroes? Who are the collaborators? These are intriguing questions not often answered after the images of American-flag-waving Parisians have faded. Within that question lie, also, the many layers of Parisian society. The residents, the classes, the locals and the expatriates. Francine Thomas Howard explores the world of Parisians of African descent. Their community has layers of its own. There are the Africans from the West Indies; those from African colonies, such as Senegal; and those African-Americans who arrived with the liberating armies. Each has its own history and assumptions, and each reacts to a Paris transformed by war and liberation.

And so, we have Marie-Thérése, single mother from Martinique. She was once married to a white Frenchman and had two children, an arrangement that made it easy to emigrate to Paris after the divorce. Her son Christophe is infatuated with a beautiful young Genvieve (the author lingers sensuously over the physical atributes of her characters). Her daughter Colette is flighty and free-spirited, and refuses to settle on the man her mother has in mind for her. Glovia Johnson, an American singer, was famous before the war and survived the occupation by appeasing the German officers who paid court to her. Michael Collins is a dashing American soldier attracted to Marie-Thérése, but she thinks he most assuredly prefers her friend Glovia (though just how school teacher Marie-Thérése and chanteuse Glovia became friends is unclear, one with her elegant salons, the other with her garret apartment and family worries). And, of course, the war is still on, at least for a while, and there are intrigues and pressures of battle interweaved within the extensive romance of this book. There are also intriguing questions of class and culture, and these bring engaging gravitas to the story. The American soldier is surprised by the ease with which the African-French accept interracial relationships. Marie-Thérése is drawn by his American charm and scent of liberation. Christophe is smitten by the girl he met on the day of liberation, but her secrets threaten his bliss. Throughout, Glovia provides a note of literary class and style, drawing in many real-life artists and writers to her Montmartre salon.

The book is primarily a family romance, with each of the characters seeking his or her bliss in the shadow of war and liberation. Not a lot is said of the gritty conditions of immediate post-war Paris, though that is the background to the romantic drama of this story. Readers expecting more of that history may find something missing. When our heroes travel to Toulon after the liberation, what elements of the defunct Vichy regime do they encounter? Does the demobilized French resistance fighter have to re-enlist in the Gaullist French army? Howard's characters, mercifully, don't have to face such questions. What we do get is a romance made up of many parts, and run through with secrets and dreams. It isn't likely to come out as the reader suspects, but isn't that the truth about all love affairs?

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