The Post­mistress of Paris: A Novel

  • Review
By – February 23, 2022

At once thrilling and his­tor­i­cal­ly edi­fy­ing, The Post­mistress of Paris illu­mi­nates the often over­looked sto­ries of non-Jew­ish peo­ple who put their lives on the line dur­ing World War II to help refugees escape Europe. The efforts of the Emer­gency Res­cue com­mit­tee serve as a tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of resis­tance in the face of barbarism.

Author Meg Waite Clay­ton fic­tion­al­izes the life of heiress Mary Jayne Gold through the char­ac­ter of Nanée, an inde­pen­dent, pro­gres­sive socialite who can­not look away from the strug­gles of the Jews in her free-spir­it­ed social cir­cle. She knows she can always go home to Amer­i­ca, but she also knows her Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship is an indis­pens­able asset to get­ting the artists and intel­lec­tu­als she loves out of danger.

Nights of draw­ing exquis­ite corpses with Andre Bre­ton and oth­er sur­re­al­ist artists turn into brain­storm­ing ses­sions with the Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ist Var­i­an Fry, the real-life fig­ure behind the efforts to smug­gle out refugees from Vichy France. Hud­dled togeth­er in the Vil­la Air-Bel, a safe haven in Mar­seille arranged by Fry, Nanée and the rest of the res­cue com­mit­tee dare to do what few oth­ers in their posi­tions would choose to do.

A char­ac­ter who could so eas­i­ly come off as fan­ci­ful – an heiress who lives in Paris and flies planes with her dog, Dagob­ert – is, in Clayton’s hands, authen­ti­cal­ly mul­ti­di­men­sion­al. The con­se­quences of some of Nanée’s deci­sions great­ly trau­ma­tize her. She grap­ples with the grief of los­ing her father and with the con­ser­v­a­tive morals instilled in her by the wealthy milieu in which she grew up in Evanston, Illi­nois. Her dogged deter­mi­na­tion to fight against the forces of fas­cism makes her an indeli­ble figure.

The nov­el is pro­pelled by Nanée’s love affair with the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Eduoard Moss; Moss’s own rela­tion­ship with his daugh­ter, Luki; and Moss’s mem­o­ries of his deceased wife. Moss is a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, but he resem­bles many of the per­se­cut­ed Jew­ish artists who tried with their work, against all odds, to shed light on the truth of their times. Moss’s ordeal in the intern­ment camp Camp des Milles is aching­ly ren­dered. When he con­tem­plates the use of mak­ing art in such con­di­tions to his fel­low internee, the real artist Max Ernst, Max reminds him, It staves off hunger, mak­ing art does … It’s a balm for anger.”

In telling a spell­bind­ing sto­ry, Clay­ton achieves what great his­tor­i­cal fic­tion writ­ers set out to do: edu­cate the read­er about the time peri­od with­out seem­ing didac­tic. It’s a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to pull off, but The Post­mistress of Paris makes it look easy.

Ariel­la Carmell is a Brook­lyn-based writer of plays and prose. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where she stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sier­ra Neva­da Review, the Brook­lyn review, and elsewhere.

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