Paris Never Leaves You

Written by Ellen Feldman
Review by Larry Zuckerman

Ten years after Paris was liberated, Charlotte Foret lives in New York with her daughter, Vivi, now fourteen, and works at a prestigious publishing house. Her boss, Horace Field, is also her landlord, for the Forets live in his East Side brownstone. But as the novel opens, Charlotte’s tightly knit life threatens to unravel, mostly because Vivi asks about her Jewish heritage and her father, killed in the war.

However, Charlotte has always said that it took Hitler to make her a Jew, and she forbids such explorations, a stance that tells you (if melodramatic clues don’t) that she’s hiding a shameful secret. But Horace wants, nay, demands that Charlotte reflect on who she is and what she believes. Theirs is a memorable, thought-provoking moral conflict, and their dialogue crackles like a duel, my favorite part of the narrative.

Feldman brings wartime Paris alive, but parts of Paris Never Leaves You feel hard to swallow. I don’t believe the historical basis for Charlotte’s secret, despite what Feldman writes in her afterword. I also think that the story would elicit more tension, feel less contrived, and present Charlotte more sympathetically if the reader knew her secret. Watching her shut down for no clear reason is merely puzzling or annoying; knowing why would let you struggle alongside her.

The minor characters are contrived too. Vivi’s an ideal child, too sweet and calm for fourteen, and she bears nary a psychological scratch from her early years in wartime Paris. Horace’s wife, a psychoanalyst, is a cliché, a dogmatic busybody who sleeps with her analysands.

If you can get past the wobbly what-ifs and concentrate on Charlotte and Horace, Paris Never Leaves You succeeds as a meaty moral tale. But as historical fiction, it’s thinner.