An extensively researched cultural history of Paris from 1939 to 1949, covering events leading to the fall of Paris, its occupation by the Nazis, and the early postwar years.
Journalist Sebba (That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, 2012, etc.), a former Reuters foreign correspondent, pored over memoirs, diaries, and letters, read books, watched films, handled artifacts, and interviewed women who lived through the events to understand how the war changed the lives of Parisiennes and how they adjusted to loss, fear, and hunger under occupation. Women were forced to make difficult choices, and the author convincingly demonstrates that this was a complicated business, that their options were limited as they struggled to live alongside their male Nazi occupiers and care for their families in the absence of men, many of whom were serving overseas or were prisoners of war. The stories show the good and bad sides of human nature as women resisted, suffered, and died or collaborated and flourished. In postwar Paris, female collaborators were publicly shamed, but the work of women resistors often went unrecognized because they were not part of an official organization. Sebba brings their stories to light and also highlights women who made less-than-honorable compromises. She seems to have a fondness for the socially prominent, making her vulnerable to the charge of name-dropping, and she gratuitously brings in big names in the fashion world—e.g., Christian Dior gets space because his sister was a member of the resistance. Since the book is divided into chapters that cover one year, individuals whose stories begin in an early year may not appear again for several years, making their narratives hard to follow. The back-of-the book list of the cast of characters is an essential guide for befuddled readers.
Despite the gossipy bits, the research is impressive, and Sebba offers balance to the plethora of war histories featuring the roles of men. The book has ample material for lively discussion in women’s studies classes.