Friday Reads:  When Paris Went Dark

Wow! This month’s Narrative Nonfiction Book Club was a big hit.  We had more than twice our average number of participants, with some new people there for the first time and several semi-regulars who come when they can.  The draw?  They were eager to share their observations of and reactions to Ronald C. Rosbottom’s 2014 best seller, When Paris Went Dark:  the City of Light under German occupation, 1940 – 1944.

Despite having seventeen people, (or maybe because we did have a large group) the discussion was deep, direct and illuminating.  Heads were nodding in agreement as speakers worked out aloud impressions they had not been able to bring to focus in their minds while reading alone.  One person would make a point and another would augment it or still another would respectfully disagree and offer an alternative opinion. We had a rich discussion from which we all came away knowing more about the book than when we entered the room.

We discussed several topics (and could have easily gone on for at least another hour), but probably the most illuminating was our discussion of chapter three, entitled “Minuet”. This chapter described in great detail the first two years of the occupation when proud Parisians politely, but coldly, acquiesced to the new order imposed by the A-list German army.  In turn, the Germans were respectful of Parisians and even helpful to Jews, stopping other Parisians from harassing them in line, for example.  Many of us learned details of daily life during this period for the first time and were surprised at how calm and civil it was.  Our discussion drew attention to the analogy of the minuet which we realized characterized the time beautifully and helped us to understand the subtleties of German-French relations in Paris … for a time.

While we all felt it was very interesting to learn the Germans perspective of the occupation and about French artists and writers who elected to remain in Paris, we had some disagreement about whether the format of the book was the best choice and if it could accurately be described as narrative.  Most books that we have discussed read like a novel. While it could be argued that When Paris Went Dark has the standard novel format with an opening, building tension, climax and denouement, it didn’t read like a novel to many of us.  It reads as a collection of anecdotes connected by interpretive descriptions.  In other words, it reads much like a history book.  Some readers wondered if focusing on a single family would allow it to be more narrative or novel like.  But then, we all agreed there was too much information that the author wanted to share to use that format and it would have been a different book entirely! 

The group found this to be a very engaging and worthwhile read.  We learned new things, saw different perspectives and examined our own beliefs.  We highly recommend this well-written and thought-provoking book. 

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