Sunday, October 9, 2022

Review: The Paris Showroom by Juliet Blackwell

by Julie Blackwell
Release Date: April 19, 2022
2022 Berkley Books
Kindle Edition; 416 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593097878
Audiobook: B09B82NCNB
Genre: Fiction / Historical / WWII
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.75 / 5 Stars

Capucine Benoit works alongside her father to produce fans of rare feathers, beads, and intricate pleating for the haute couture fashion houses. But after the Germans invade Paris in June 1940, Capucine and her father must focus on mere survival—until they are betrayed to the secret police and arrested for his political beliefs. When Capucine saves herself from deportation to Auschwitz by highlighting her connections to Parisian design houses, she is sent to a little-known prison camp located in the heart of Paris, within the Lévitan department store.

Capucine’s estranged daughter, Mathilde, remains in the care of her conservative paternal grandparents, who are prospering under the Nazi occupation. But after her mother is arrested and then a childhood friend goes missing, the usually obedient Mathilde finds herself drawn into the shadowy world of Paris’s Résistance fighters. 
My Thoughts
The Paris Showroom was a fascinating look at the not-so-well known prison camp located in the middle of Paris, where prisoners worked extremely long hours sorting out furniture, works of art, and other paraphernalia confiscated from the homes of those who were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Knowing that prisoners were kept in Paris, I am glad to see the spotlight put on those people who were forced to work countless hours sorting plundered items, often recognizing items from friends and family, helpless to do much about it.  Furthermore, the prisoners were requested to clean and repair the items so they could be sold to German soldiers to furnish their confiscated apartments while in Paris. 
The story alternated between Capucine and Mathilde's POV, and while I enjoyed both of them, I did prefer Capucine's simply because I was fascinated by the inner workings of the Lévitan prison camp while Mathilde's story led her in the direction of the resistance network in Paris, something with which I was much more familiar.  
Capucine has quite the backstory, and she is quite the character.  A wild and free spirit who embraced the liberties of the 1920s and 1930s, she was definitely unconventional, preferring the night clubs, jazz bars, and artistic pursuits that were available during this time period, but all of this came at a great cost as she lost her precious daughter to her prim and conventional in-laws who didn't approve of her behaviour.  She has an intense love affair an American jazz pianist during this time period, but refuses to marry him, but you figure it out easily enough when she gets arrested although it takes a long time for it to be said on the page.  I did have a hard time putting the Capucine who worked in the concentration camp together with the free-spirited one, as they were so different.  The war has definitely broken more than one spirit, and you can see how much of an affect it has on Capucine as she reflects on her earlier days and more carefree ways.  I did like the way she encouraged the prisoners to rebel however, in their own ways, and I found it interesting to learn about the many ways prisoners would go about trying to sabotage things and protect things the Nazis tried to destroy. 
I really enjoyed Mathilde's character development, but I have to say that I did not like her at all for the first two-thirds of the book.  Reflecting the conservative views of the grand-parents who raised her, you got to see the other side of the affect of Nazi occupation in Paris during this time period; the focus was on those who got wealthy by helping the Nazis, and their subsequent falls from grace when the war ended.  Mathilde was quite naive in the beginning, but as she learned, she grew on me.  And she soon learned that her grand-parents' viewpoints did not necessarily have to be hers.
As much as I enjoyed learning about the showroom concentration camp and the intertwining lives of Capucine and Mathilde, I did feel like the plot lost focus and there was a lack of real drive / purpose to the story.  There were times when the story fell flat, or relied on coincidence to further a plot point, something of which I am not a fan, no matter how well-written or how beautifully descriptive the scene may have been.  And while I love good resolutions to books, when you learn about the relationship between Capucine and her new husband, and the fact they are returning to the United States to live, there was a small part of me that wondered how that was going to work out.
The Paris Showroom was a very enjoyable book, and I loved learning about the fans and the artistry that went into them as I don't think I've ever given it a thought before.  I was glad the focus was on the department store concentration camps as there aren't too many books that mention them, so I was fascinated by the men and women who laboured and suffered there for years, with few people knowing they were there.  The character development in this book was good, although I'm not sure a reconciliation subplot was needed here, and I did think the plot fell flat at times, and sort of meandered around. That being said, if you are interesting in learning more about the Paris prison camps, this book may be of interest to you.