The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Title: The Last Time I Saw Paris
Author: Lynn Sheene
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Berkley Trade, 2011
Source: Library

Claire Harris Stone runs from her loveless marriage to a former lover living in Paris. However, she arrives on the cusp of the Nazi occupation and finds her former lover married. Despite her cold welcome to the city, Claire falls in love with Paris' elegance and constructs a life there. However, when friends who have helped her demand her help in return, Claire must transform her elegant and simple life and reach for her reserves of strength and resourcefulness.

I didn't know much about this book when I picked it up - just that a friend of mine whose judgment I trust was planning to read it. I began reading it during Paris in July (as you can see, I am a little behind in my reviews...). While the book didn't leave a lasting impression on me, it does have a few fantastic moments.

Claire goes through some interesting transformations in the book. She begins her life as a girl on a farm during the Great Depression, eager to escape her family and her former life. She then becomes a(n obnoxious, in my opinion) socialite, married for money and connections. I think Claire's socialite phase is probably what keeps me from fully investing in the book. She is very shallow and materialistic and at times almost amoral, serving her own devices. When she gets to Paris she slowly begins to soften, learning to love something other than herself by first getting entangled in a love affair with the city herself and then expanding her horizons to include many other types of relationships, from romance to almost maternal love. It was at this point in the story that I started enjoying her character a bit more. At first she is a confused, albeit determined woman in a fancy evening gown, but she transforms into a woman who will defend the people and the city she loves at all costs. There were a couple of scenes that might have led to a silent fist-pump or two from me. I never got to the point where I loved Claire, but by the end of the book she had earned my respect.

An element of the book that I loved was, of course, the depiction of Paris. This book referenced several of my favorite locations in Paris, most notably Parc Monceau, a gorgeous and slightly wilder park than some that are more well-known in Paris. Sheene characterized the feel of Paris very aptly, describing its understated elegance and the understanding of the need for small fragments of beauty in day-to-day life.

An element of the book that I didn't enjoy as much was the fact that as a spy, Claire's main way of getting out of danger or obtaining information was through feminine wiles. You know, expose some leg, make some promises, sometimes follow through on those promises. That section of the book was pretty unappealing to me, not just because of my personal beliefs but also because of the objectification there. I understand that she was doing something heroic to try and help people she cared about, but it pushed things a little too far and left me with a bad taste in my mouth instead of admiration at Claire's heroics.

The plot was interesting but slow moving - to be honest, after reading the first seventy pages I almost put down the book for good. I didn't enjoy Claire's characters and very little was happening in the plot. The lovely descriptions of Paris and the moments when Claire truly starts kicking you-know-what and taking names are what got me through. If you are a fan of Paris or WWII, you will probably enjoy this book more than the average reader, but for me, it was just barely above average.

3.5 stars

Warnings: a few f-bombs, a few "scenes" that I had to skim, violence

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