When I was younger I went through a long phase of reading books about and set during WWII. Maybe it is easier to read books that can be filled with so much tragedy and heartache when you are young and inexperienced and with your feet just at the threshold to life and the larger world. I have since become somewhat reluctant to pick up historical fiction that I know is set in Europe during WWII, particularly if it will involve the characters having to go into hiding or being sent to Concentration camps. I think I have experienced too many hard things in life as an adult. I find myself always waiting for the shoe to drop tense with worry. I guess I become too involved with the characters in books. Sometimes I will flip to the back of the book looking for some reference to a loved character hoping to see their name at the end. Of course that can be tricky since I won't know their situation unless I am reading those pages.
I am always reassured, however, to discover that a story has been inspired by actual people or events. And that is the case with Kristin Harmel's The Room on Rue Amélie. The novel is set in Occupied France and concerns an American woman who marries a Frenchman on the cusp of WWII and finds herself helping Allied pilots who have been shot down over France escape back home. Perfect setting for the 'shoe to drop' and I won't say that it does not on occasion, but I still found it to be an enjoyable, if occasionally tense, read but still story filled with hope.
Ruby Henderson meets a dashing Frenchman in America and falls for him. They marry and move to Paris, which for Ruby is a dream come true. Unfortunately those first throes of love and passion are dampened when the Nazis arrive and the Occupation begins. Marcel becomes preoccupied and dismissive of Ruby's American sentiments. Nothing she does or says seems to be right and she feels increasingly isolated and useless as the war intensifies. She watches as her neighbors, a Jewish couple with a teenage daughter struggle with the many restrictions the Germans put in place. Purely by accident she becomes involved with the French Resistance smuggling Allied pilots out of France. And finally Ruby feels her chance to help the war effort has arrived, but it will not be without danger.
The story is set entirely during the fiercest years of the war, though those years are bookended by chapters set in 2002. At the start you aren't sure who is talking though there are hints if you've read the book jacket blurb. It's a perfect summer/vacation read, though maybe a little more serious and tension filled as you would expect from a war story. Apparently when Harmel was researching a previous book she came across the story of an American woman who found herself in just such a situation. The woman lived out her life in Florida and had published a diary of her wartime experiences. Along with other books she drew on the Journal of Hélène Berr (which I know I have a copy of somewhere on my shelves). I almost hate to find myself being drawn into books about WWII that will surely be difficult and sad reading, but you know how one book so often leads to another.
I'm not sure I would have picked up The Room on Rue Amélie had it not been the book chosen for the B&N book club that recently formed, but I am happy I had the chance to read it. She's a good storyteller and I was glad she did not rely on too predictable tropes to tell the story. The next 'big' B&N read is going to be Anne Tyler's forthcoming Clock Dance which will be discussed August 8.