Anne Sebba writes in her extensive history of the lives of Parisian women during WWII that it’s our task to understand, not to judge. And the women whose lives are covered range across such a broad spectrum, from those with selfless motives and actions to those who didn’t act as honorably as might be expected.
She tells the history so effortlessly that despite the inclusion of a massive amount of information, the reader never feels bogged down. Rather, she completely achieves her goal of making us understand – the women of this time were faced with extremely difficult choices, often under extreme pressure and with limited options. It’s structured by the year, from the beginning of the war through occupation, liberation, and the beginnings of recuperation. Their lives and backgrounds, careers and relationships are all explored in the context of their decisions to do what they did.
Some are very well-known and historically glamorous names already connected to the period: Coco Chanel, author Irene Nemirovsky, photographer Lee Miller, even a young Jackie Kennedy Onassis makes a brief appearance. I particularly loved the stories of lesser known figures – Resistance fighters who bicycled along the Normandy coast laden with explosive materials for blowing up railways and forced to attempt small talk with German soldiers, those who ended up in the horrific Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, and those who, when faced with an easier choice, chose to do something heroic instead. Even if decades later, they still don’t see it that way.
That was a big highlight of the book for me, Sebba’s interviews with women who are still alive at the time of writing, and who look back on their wartime activities with that amazing gift of time to reflect and consider. Their words and interviews were just incredible and were such a fantastic element of the book. And I was continually shocked at how young so many of the women were during wartime. Their bravery was that much more stunning when considering they were so, so young.
I found it somewhat difficult keeping track of who some of the women were, so their stories blended together a bit for me. The actions were still important, but unfortunately I lost a little some of the individuality. Many reappeared throughout the years/chapters, but the narrative structure skipped around a lot and there really are a large amount of women described. That’s a good thing, because it’s very impacting to get this plethora of stories from different women in various walks of life (although a little bit skewed towards the wealthier or more privileged side, in my opinion). And the stories of several are told in more detail and to a greater extent, and those were easier to differentiate, obviously, but sometimes I got confused when from paragraph to paragraph the subject changed quickly, or when one subject was introduced and moved past too quickly.
The author did do an excellent job of quickly referencing some of the figures she mentioned previously when their stories crossed back into the narrative, so it seems she was aware that it might be difficult to follow so many lives and chose to err on the side of plenty and include them anyway, because really, not to keep hammering this point – but this is all important, inspiring history to know.
How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation
by Anne Sebba
published October 18, 2016 by St. Martin’s Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for review.