The Paper Girl of Paris

  • Review
By – December 21, 2020

Alice Pre­witt, the mature and intro­spec­tive high school stu­dent who is the hero­ine of Jor­dyn Taylor’s new nov­el, is con­fronting a some­what unusu­al sit­u­a­tion as her sto­ry begins. Her beloved grand­moth­er has just died and in her will she has left Alice an apart­ment in Paris. Not every New Jer­sey teenag­er inher­its a lux­u­ri­ous prop­er­ty in a Euro­pean cap­i­tal. Alice’s oth­er con­cerns will be more famil­iar to read­ers. She is an only child, who over the years has strug­gled to cope with her par­ents’ unwill­ing­ness to dis­cuss dif­fi­cult issues, includ­ing her mother’s depres­sion. As Alice observes with mut­ed frus­tra­tion, My family’s first lan­guage is small talk.” Alice will have to learn a new lan­guage, both lit­er­al­ly, on her trip to France with her par­ents, and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, as she works to find a more hon­est means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them. At the same time that this plot unfolds in the present, a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive devel­ops in flash­backs to World War II when the city was occu­pied by the Ger­mans. Tay­lor skill­ful­ly inter­weaves the two sto­ries, with each one reflect­ing the oth­er, as char­ac­ters past and present strug­gle with the cen­tral con­flicts in their lives.

When Alice enters her grandmother’s apart­ment, she finds diaries and pho­tos that imply con­tra­dict­ing facts about the fam­i­ly that lived there. A detailed jour­nal kept by Alice’s great-aunt Ada­lyn rais­es com­pli­cat­ed issues of moral respon­si­bil­i­ty. At the same time, Alice’s com­mit­ment to research and inter­pret this doc­u­ment cre­ates a grip­ping mys­tery and a rich explo­ration of his­to­ry. While she devotes time and ener­gy to unearthing the truth of the past, her par­ents’ lives remain sta­t­ic, as they show them­selves unable to cope with the impli­ca­tions of the unex­pect­ed lega­cy. At the same time, Alice meets a young man whose sup­port and affec­tion bring her joy, but also chal­lenge her fam­i­ly dynam­ics in a some­times painful way.

The main char­ac­ters in the nov­el are not Jew­ish, but Adalyn’s friend­ship with French Jews rais­es her aware­ness about the dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences of her country’s occu­pa­tion by Ger­many. Adalyn’s descrip­tion of the infa­mous roundup in the Vélo­drome d’Hiver, where Jews were impris­oned before their ulti­mate depor­ta­tion to Auschwitz, con­veys the shock expe­ri­enced by French Chris­tians who had ini­tial­ly expect­ed that their lives would con­tin­ue in a com­pro­mised but still rec­og­niz­able way: Some­times when I learn of the cru­el­ty that is hap­pen­ing, I think it must be hap­pen­ing in anoth­er world.” The author is unstint­ing in her por­tray­al of those French cit­i­zens who suc­ceed­ed in turn­ing a blind eye to the suf­fer­ing of their neigh­bors, pre­fer­ring trans­par­ent self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for appease­ment and col­lab­o­ra­tion. The hero­ism of those who chose to join the Resis­tance is para­dox­i­cal­ly more impres­sive and yet more believ­able in the con­text of this ugly alter­na­tive. Tay­lor, in com­par­ing but not equat­ing Adalyn’s life-threat­en­ing cir­cum­stances to Alice’s fam­i­ly tur­moil, has cre­at­ed a work of both psy­cho­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal depth for young adults.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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