The Nazis have taken over your town, the men are in prisons or factories, and food is scarce. How will you get through the rest of the war?
That’s the central question of “Les Parisiennes,” Anne Sebba’s deep look at the women caught in the occupation of Paris during World War II. The best answer may be, “C’est compliqué,” the one the French came to lean upon.
From 1940 to 1945, Paris became “a significantly feminized city,” Sebba writes, “and the women had to negotiate on a daily basis with the male occupier.” She digs into that overlooked aspect of a much documented war.
In the summer of 1940, some believed that France’s early surrender would spare them the worst of war. But as Sebba’s chapters unfold, that optimism gives way to soul-sucking choices. Would the film star Arletty cozy up to German officials and keep her career? Would the mother Odette work for the Resistance despite the toll on her family? When the deportation of Jews begins, would people fight, flee or betray? At war’s end, there would be a reckoning for all.
“Les Parisiennes” takes place at a time when French women did not yet have the right to vote but made life-or-death decisions. To bring their roles into focus, Sebba, a British author and journalist, interviewed survivors and combed through records, from family letters to prisoner transfers to chilling denunciation files.
Her “cast list” names scores of women, from the resisters to the collaborators and everyone in between. The singer Edith Piaf, who entertained Nazis but gave money to help Jews flee. The Communist Lise London, who organized a riot to protest food shortages. Charles de Gaulle’s niece Geneviève, who joined many other women in a concentration camp.
A focus on French women in Paris at this time would be an ample story in itself, but Sebba widens the frame to include British women working as spies, fashion designer Christian Dior in the postwar period and outtakes from her biography of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée for whom Edward VIII abdicated the British throne.
All this makes for a dense, sometimes dizzying read, and as a result Sebba’s work suffers in comparison with the storytelling of history writers Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson.
Still, many readers will find this book well worth the effort. Though flawed, it achieves Sebba’s goal of bringing attention to the women of this period, the perils of their choices and the transformative power of their ordeal.
Maureen McCarthy is the Star Tribune’s topics team leader.
Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died Under Nazi Occupation
By: Anne Sebba.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 448 pages, $27.99.