“Anne Sebba has the nearly miraculous gift of combining the vivid intimacy of the lives of women during The Occupation with the history of the time. This is a remarkable book.” —Edmund de Waal, New York Times bestselling author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes
New York Times bestselling author Anne Sebba explores a devastating period in Paris's history and tells the stories of how women survived—or didn’t—during the Nazi occupation.
Paris in the 1940s was a place of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation, and secrets. During the occupation, the swastika flew from the Eiffel Tower and danger lurked on every corner. While Parisian men were either fighting at the front or captured and forced to work in German factories, the women of Paris were left behind where they would come face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis, as waitresses, shop assistants, or wives and mothers, increasingly desperate to find food to feed their families as hunger became part of everyday life.
When the Nazis and the puppet Vichy regime began rounding up Jews to ship east to concentration camps, the full horror of the war was brought home and the choice between collaboration and resistance became unavoidable. Sebba focuses on the role of women, many of whom faced life and death decisions every day. After the war ended, there would be a fierce settling of accounts between those who made peace with or, worse, helped the occupiers and those who fought the Nazis in any way they could.
Sebba (That Woman), a former Reuters foreign correspondent, burrows into the lives of women in the City of Light during WWII to reveal their captivating and complicated stories. Rather than simply presenting the women as collaborators or resisters, Sebba shows the impossible choices they faced, which hardly seemed like choices at all. This is the book's heart, and it pulsates from start to finish. That focus is slightly marred by Sebba's broad interpretation of "Parisiennes." She uses it to describe women who lived in the city, including French citizens and noncitizens alike, and those who didn't spend the entire war within the confines of the city. It's logical to include noncitizens such as Ir ne N mirovsky and Noor Inayat Khan, who'd both lived in France for about 20 years before the war started. But passages on the "Grey Mice" German women who came to work in Paris during the war belong in another book. While extending the story outside of Paris allows Sebba more range in discussing the dangers of Resistance work and the devastating deportations, it blurs what could have been an incisive, powerful portrait of an imperiled city. Sebba's clear-eyed narrative concludes, correctly, that these women deserve understanding, not judgment. Photos.
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So many characters to learn about. This kept the book from flowing smoothly. Would have been more interesting if the focus was on fewer characters but more in depth.
Anne Sebba shows us their options, their thoughts and actions
Many films and books have explored the hardships of war, particularly in Paris, but few have focused solely on the women, their struggles and challenges that threatened their survival with shortages, dangers and frankly, a madman with a mission in charge. While reading this book, there was one moment that kept returning to me, from The Monuments Men, a scene with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland. Hoping to get help from Valland, now in jail and viewed as a ‘collaborator’, Damon explains that if it weren’t for the Americans, she would be speaking German. Her response is both intrinsic to who she is, and the French belief in their own selves. “No. If it was not for you, I might be dead. But I would still be speaking French.”
Her character is explored further but the line does, for me, give of insight into attitude that helped them face the challenges the women of Paris would encounter, as detailed by Anne Sebba. Told in chronological form covering a ten year period beginning in 1939, the stories unfold, each in their own voice, piecemeal: readers can’t help but be intrigued and engaged as they move from the well-known (Coco Chanel, Colette) through those less recognizable to modern eyes, all facing hardships, choices and often recriminations after the occupation.
From the early lead up to war, when celebration and an almost reckless display of wealth and concentrated enjoyment of the city and its myriad delights is soon replaced with choices, betrayals, recriminations, hardships and later, the sotto voiced whispers and glances as those who survived using their wits and occasionally trading their favors to ensure the next hour, day or even meal. While circumstances (and choices) for each woman were unique, the goal was ultimately to survive long enough to see the Nazis leave, abandoned by their men (more than 1.5 million French soldiers in German POW camps by the end of 1940), abandoned by their government and oftentimes the world. The choices these women faced were horrid, and Anne Sebba shows us their options, their thoughts and actions, allowing us to understand and perhaps empathize with the eventual outcome, bringing the history and time to light in some small way.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions and expectations are my own responsibility.