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Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDON

Today I’m sharing my thoughts on two powerful and compelling works of WWII historical fiction, one by Pam Jenoff and the other by Karen White.  This is my third time reading a novel from Jenoff and as with the first two, it was a very emotional experience for me.  This was my first time reading a novel from White, although I’ve been wanting to try her books for years now.

 

Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDONThe Woman with the Blue Star Goodreads

Author: Pam Jenoff

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Publisher:  Park Row

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley.  All opinions are my own.

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Woman with the Blue Star, is a powerful and inspiring story of strength, resilience, love, and friendship set against the dangerous backdrop of Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII.  The story follows two young women, one Jewish and the other not, and the unlikely friendship they are able to forge in such a deadly environment.

Sadie Gault is an eighteen year old Jewish girl who has been living with her parents in the Krakow Ghetto.  When the Nazis arrive to liquidate the Ghetto, Sadie and her family, along with another family, manage to escape into the sewers beneath the city. Unbeknownst to Sadie, her father had made arrangements with a trusted friend who works in the sewers and this friend has created a shelter for them to seek refuge in until they can safely leave.  What they thought would be a few days stretches into weeks and months.  My heart just broke for Sadie and for everyone else with her, having to live in such squalid conditions and fearing for your life every minute of every day.  I also found them inspiring though because of the inner strength they all clearly possessed and their will to survive. I’m not sure I would have that kind of strength.

In contrast to Sadie, there is also Ella Stepanek. Ella comes from a wealthy Polish family and finds herself living in relative comfort and able to move about with relative ease, in part because of her stepmother who has allied herself with the Nazis who occupy their city.  She knows she has it good in comparison to others but doesn’t really know how good until one day while at the market, she sees a pair of eyes staring up at her from a sewer grate.  At first Ella cannot believe her own eyes but then realizes it’s a Jewish girl about her own age and that she must be hiding down there.  Ella, who has herself been desperate for friendship and is disgusted that her stepmother is collaborating with Nazis, vows to do whatever she can to protect Sadie from being discovered.

I loved the friendship that formed between Sadie and Ella.  It was so beautiful to see amidst so much horror and death, and I longed for them both to survive the war so they could continue their sister-like bond in times of peace.  I just really loved both girls so much and how they were each exactly what the other needed.  I also loved another unlikely friendship that formed in the book between Sadie and Saul, another Jewish boy who was also sheltering in the sewer.  His family is much more religious than hers and he shouldn’t really associate with Sadie, but in such close quarters with no one else to talk to, he and Sadie become close and it’s another beautiful relationship to contrast with the ugliness all around them.

I don’t want to go into any specifics about what ultimately happens to all of these characters, but I will say that I flew through this book in less than a day and I cried more than once, especially when I got to the author’s notes at the end and realized that while these specific characters were not real, there are real accounts of Jewish families living in sewers while trying desperately to escape the Nazis.  The Woman with the Blue Star really is a powerful and emotional testament to how strong the will to survive is. 5 STARS.

 

Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDONThe Last Night in London Goodreads

Author: Karen White

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Publisher:  Berkley

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley.  All opinions are my own.

I’ve been wanting to try one of Karen White’s novels for a while now so when I saw that her newest novel, The Last Night in London, is primarily set in London during WWII, I thought that would be a great place to start, considering my love of WWII historical fiction. And it turns out I was right, as I found myself enveloped in an intricately-crafted story of family and friendship, romance and drama, suffering and resilience, all wrapped up in a web of long-buried secrets and deception set against the deadly backdrop of the Blitz.

I was sucked into White’s story from the opening pages of the prologue where we meet an unnamed woman running through the streets of London with bombs falling all around her.  She knocks on a door, hands over a suitcase which when opened reveals there is an infant within, and then she flees into the night.  Who is this woman, where is she running off to, and if that is her baby, why is she leaving it with someone else?  I was already on the edge of my seat wanting answers to all of these questions and more.  White’s story is a slow burn though so fair warning that lots of threads will need to be pulled together before those answers are revealed. The reveal is definitely worth the wait though so just enjoy the journey.

The story features a dual timeline, one set in present day London while the other is set during WWII London around the time of the Blitz.  The present day timeline follows American journalist Maddie Warner who is traveling to London to interview Precious Dubose, a former fashion model, who is about to turn 100 years old. Maddie, a distant relative of Precious’, is only there to interview Precious about WWII fashion and her time living in London around the war, but the more Maddie interacts with Precious, she gets the feeling Precious has something weighing her down and that she would like to share more with Maddie than just her thoughts on fashion.  The WWII timeline, coupled with some investigative work Maddie does on her own, slowly begins to unravel the long-held secrets Precious has been keeping for over 50 years.

Both timelines made for pretty compelling reads, but I was definitely drawn in more by the WWII timeline because I wanted answers to my questions from the prologue.  I also loved the various characters that were introduced in this timeline, including a young Precious and her roommate, Eva, who also has her fair share of secrets.  It was fascinating watching the two of them try to live, work, and love in wartime London, sometimes getting caught up in questionable activities with even more questionable people.  I was captivated by their adventures and was waiting to see how their stories culminated in that moving scene from the prologue.

I very much enjoyed my first foray into a Karen White novel and look forward to reading more from her.  4 STARS.

Early Review: THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS

Early Review:  THE LOST GIRLS OF PARISThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
five-stars
Published by Park Row on January 29, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS REVIEW

Set during and immediately following WWII and inspired by real life people and historical events, Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris is centered around the stories of three women and a ring of British female spies.

The story begins in Manhattan in 1946.  It is here that we meet Grace Healey, who is trying to start over after losing her husband in an automobile accident.  One morning while cutting through Grand Central Station on her way to work, Grace happens across an abandoned suitcase tucked under a bench.  Only seeing the name Trigg on the case, she looks inside the case and finds a packet of twelve photographs, each photo a different woman.  Captivated by the photos, Grace impulsively takes the photos with her but leaves the suitcase behind.  When Grace thinks better of what she has done and returns to the station to put the photos back, the suitcase is gone.  When Grace hears a news report mention a woman named Eleanor Trigg, she realizes this is who the suitcase and the photos must belong to and becomes even more curious about the women in the photos and all the more determined to get the photos back to their rightful owner.  This is the start of quite an unexpected journey for Grace.

Eleanor Trigg is the second woman the story centers on. She worked for Britain’s Special Operations Executive during WWII. The SOE was a British spy ring that was operating in France to arm and help the French resistance against the Nazis. Since their male spies were being captured frequently, Eleanor proposes that they should start recruiting and training female spies to act as couriers and radio operators.  She is put in charge of the female spy ring and sets out to handpick her recruits.  Eleanor takes full responsibility for the girls she chooses and when twelve of the girls go missing, she makes it her personal mission to find out what has happened, no matter who tries to get in her way.

The third woman The Lost Girls of Paris centers on is Marie Roux, a young woman that Eleanor recruits to become a radio operator in her unit.  It is from Marie’s vantage point that we see the recruitment process, the extremely rigorous training that the girls are put through, as well as the dangers of being deployed into Nazi-occupied France.  We also get to see the spy operations up close and how adaptable agents have to be if they are going to survive.

Through the journeys of these three women, Jenoff paints an unforgettable story of courage, strength, resilience, friendship, and sisterhood.

My absolute favorite part about The Lost Girls of Paris are the well drawn characters, especially the girls who are recruited to work in the spy network.  I just found them all to be such inspiring women, and to know they’re loosely based on real people and a real ring of female spies, just blew me away.  These women are such brave warriors and I admired their determination to do their part to stop Hitler.  Marie, of course, was phenomenal, but I was also drawn to a young woman named Josie, who although she was only 17, was the fiercest among them as well as the one who was most supportive when other girls like Marie were struggling and questioning whether they were good enough to do the job required of them.  There just isn’t enough praise to do this group of women justice.

Eleanor was fantastic too.  She’s stern and rather standoffish and most of her recruits don’t especially like her, but they respect and admire her.  I liked her mother bear attitude when it came to both her girls and her mission.

A second element of the story that I enjoyed was the way the story was presented from multiple points of view.  The details of the story unfold through the eyes of Eleanor and Marie during WWII and then from Grace’s point of view after the war.  This three-pronged approach with its alternating chapters allows us to learn about all aspects of the spy ring, from recruitment and training up through deployment and the aftermath from Eleanor and Marie’s perspectives, while we backtrack from Grace’s point of view after the war to eventually learn what happened to the twelve women in those photographs.  Those different perspectives and the moving back and forth between the two timelines added so many layers to the overall story and to the journeys of all three women.

The writing style and the overall pacing of the story worked very well for me too.  Everything just flowed so smoothly and I loved the steady buildup to the girls’ deployment and then how the intensity picked up and the suspense built up once Marie and the other girls were on the ground in France.  It took me a day or so to read the first half of the book, but then I devoured the second half in just a few hours because I so desperately wanted to know how things would turn out for them all.

For me, this story was about as close to flawless as it gets. I did have a couple of minor quibbles, the first being that it didn’t make sense to me why Grace would take the photographs from the suitcase in the first place. The photos are clearly the catalyst that set the rest of the story into motion as far as figuring out who the girls are, but Grace taking the photos just seemed like such an odd thing to do.  It bothered me for a  few pages, but then I got so engrossed in the rest of the story that I let it go and as you can see by my rating, even with my questioning Grace’s action, I still thought this was a phenomenal read.

The Lost Girls of Paris is one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long time.  The writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the fact that the story is inspired by real people and events just makes it resonate all the more.  I’d recommend The Lost Girls of Paris to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but especially to those who are fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and/or Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances.

five-stars

About Pam Jenoff

Pam is the author of several novels, including her most recent The Orphan’s Tale, an instant New York Times bestseller. Pam was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Jenoff moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Jenoff developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Having left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Jenoff is now employed as an attorney in Philadelphia.

Pam is the author of The Kommandant’s Girl, which was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award, as well as The Diplomat’s Wife and Almost Home.