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Likely Stories : The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

The other day, I found The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles.  She is an award-winning author, and she divides her time between Montana and Paris.

The story has three main characters: Odile, an aspiring librarian in 1937 Paris; Lily, a young girl who lives in 1983; and Mrs. Gustafson who largely lives alone.  Janet writes, “Numbers floated round my head like stars.  823.  The numbers were the key to a new life.  822.  Constellations of hope. 841.  In my bedroom late at night, in the morning on the way to get croissants, series after series—810, 840, 890—formed in front of my eyes.  They represented freedom, the future.  In England, while Henry VIII was busy chopping off his wives’ heads, our King François was modernizing his library, which he opened to scholars.  His royal collection was the beginning of the Bibliothèque Nationale.  Now, at the desk in my bedroom, I prepared for my job interview at the American library” (1). 

The next character is Mrs. Gustafson.  Janet writes, “Her name was Mrs. Gustafson, and she lived next door.  Behind her back, folks called her the War Bride, but she didn’t look like a bride to me.  First of all, she never wore white.  And she was old.  Way older than my parents.  Everyone knows a bride needs a groom, but her husband was long dead.  She didn’t talk to anyone.  She would always be considered the woman who came from somewhere else” (9). 

Lily is the next character, and she is struggling with an assignment related to France.  Lily thought Mrs. Gustafson was the one person she could interview.  Janet writes, “On Saturday afternoon, I hurried past Mrs. Gustafson’s old Chevy, up the rickety porch steps, and rang the doorbell.  Ding, dang, dong.  No answer.  I rang the bell again.  No one answered, so I tried the front door. 

It creaked open. ‘Hello?’ I said, and walked in.  // Silence // ‘Anyone home?’ I asked. // In the stillness of the living room, books covered the walls.  Ferns lined a stand under the picture window.  The stereo, the size of a deep freezer, could fit a body.  I flipped through her record collection: Tchaikovsky, Bach, more Tchaikovsky” (15) […] “Mrs. Gustafson shuffled down the hall as if she’d awoken from a nap.  Even alone at home, she wore a dress with her red belt.  In her stockinged feet, she seemed vulnerable.  It occurred to me that I’d never seen a friend’s car in front of her house, never known her to host family.  She was the definition of solitude” (15).

Lovers of books, history, fiction, and all sorts of works, The Paris Library is a story bound to draw your attention.  Janet Skeslien Charles’ second novel is a sure winner filled with literature of nearly every genre.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.