Kelly Bowen’s thrilling novel is fiction, but it’s based on true stories of woman who risked everything during World War II to save lives. After the Germans invaded France, Paris, once a bustling city filled with the joyous sounds of families, students, artists, and tourists, became a dark and dangerous place where Jews were whisked away in the dead of night and taken to the camps, while those who remained behind curried favor with the Nazis by turning in their neighbors. Bowen is adept at ratcheting up the tension, page after page, as the two central characters – Estelle and Sophie – do whatever they can, at great personal peril, to help the Allies.
The novel alternates between present time and Paris during the war. In 2017, Aurelia Leclaire, known as Lia, arrives in Paris to the apartment she’s inherited from her grandmother, Estelle Allard. Aa a young girl and teen, Lia frequently spent summers with her grandmother, but had never known about the Paris apartment. She’s shocked when she sees the lavish decor and the priceless paintings, hanging on walls and hidden behind doors. But what really sends tremors through Lia is evidence that Estelle might have been a Nazi collaborator. How else to explain that note: “For the lovely Estelle, with love, Hermann Göring.”
Lia needs help authenticating the artwork and, hopefully, returning these pieces to their rightful owners, possibly Jewish families who had their belongings stolen by the Nazis. She has a reason for hiring the art expert Gabriel Seymour. One of the paintings in Estelle’s apartment shows a mansion, Millbrook Hall, still owned by the Seymour family. Gabriel arrives from London, looking nothing like the stuffy academic Lia was expecting. He’s amazed at what Lia has found in the apartment, but also skeptical that Estelle worked with the Nazis. Pushing aside the many gowns hanging in Estelle’s wardrobe, Gabriel finds a secret room filled with more artistic treasures, but also evidence that Estelle was using the room to hide from the Nazis Allied airmen, as well as a small child. “Grandmère was hiding people,” Lia says, feeling guilty she could have thought that Estelle was a traitor.
Estelle, an heiress, chooses to stay in her Paris apartment and create the appearance that she is friends with the many Nazi officers who have taken up residence in the famed Ritz Hotel. She uses her talents as a singer – earning the title La Chanteuse – to entertain the men. Pretending not to understand German, she is able to pick up “crumbs” that she feeds to her friend, Jerome. On occasion she is asked to hide an airman or other Allied combatants who has been shot down over France. She also hides Aviv, the niece of her good friend, Rachel, whose entire Jewish family is taken away by the French police.
Sophie was Gabriel’s great aunt who the family thought had died in Poland during German bombings in 1939. Actually, Sophie married a pilot, Piotr, and while he died in the blitz, she survived and vowed to do whatever she could to defeat the Nazis. She goes to England and works with the Bletchley Circle, a group of codebreakers dedicated to decipher German military codes. Because of Sophie’s ability to speak many languages, as well as her tenacious spirit, she is recruited as a spy and sent to Paris. There she partners with Estelle and the two women set out on a mission to steal the codes from a machine hidden in the basement of the Ritz.
Bowen has done a marvelous thing with this novel, The Paris Apartment. Not only has she created a well written, taut thriller, but she has shone the spotlight on the many women who worked behind the scenes to turn the tide in favor of the Allies. We probably will never really know their names, but we can be thankful that they once existed and made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Paris Apartment
Top Bigstock Photo: The facade of the famous Paris Ritz hotel with balconies and Windows is equipped with a metal grille on June 22 2012.