Title: The Paris Architect
Author: Charles Belfoure
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Sourcebooks Landmark
Release Date: 8 October 2013
Bottom Line: Disturbing and powerful
“Like most gentiles in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard has little empathy for the Jews. So when a wealthy industrialist offers him a large sum of money to devise secret hiding places for Jews, Lucien struggles with the choice of risking his life for a cause he doesn’t really believe in. Ultimately he can’t resist the challenge and begins designing expertly concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—detecting possibilities invisible to the average eye. But when one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal, he can no longer deny reality.”
Thoughts: The Paris Architect is brutal in its matter-of-factness. The German attitudes and actions towards Jews, in particular, but also anyone caught undermining German rule are nothing new; many a book discusses them or uses this malevolence to further their own stories. What makes The Paris Architect such a difficult read is the speed with which a situation devolves into violence and the even more shocking speed of recovery from that violence. People shot for living in the same apartment building as someone hiding a Jew, people shot for looking Jewish, for running without cause, for running with cause, for failing to collaborate, for capitulating too easily – no one was safe, but also no one looked askance when such things happened. People are shot, the bodies picked up and driven away, and everyone goes about their business as if there were never any interruptions. It is a cold picture of the blinders people wear in order to survive. Along the same lines, the torture scenes are also very uncomfortable to read. However, it is not the gory details, of which there are plenty, or the mere idea of torture that are the most disturbing. Instead, it is the idea that people would go to such extreme lengths to find one or two persons. Violence happens without warning, and people are brutalized in the most extreme fashions. As realistic as it might be, The Paris Architect is not for the easily disturbed.
In some regards, each of the characters is an archetype. Colonel Schlegel is so extreme in his hatred and vengeance. Lucien’s mistress, Adele, is too mercenary in her ambition. Manet is too enigmatic in his compassion and contradictory collaboration. Yet, these archetypes provide readers with a well-rounded view of the personalities at play during the Nazi occupation. While Schlegel may be fanatical in his hatred and single-mindedness and not every Nazi was quite as vitriolic as he is, there were still plenty of Germans who did fit Schlegel’s description. Conversely, Adele, Manet, and even Lucien are at the other end of the spectrum, struggling to survive, if not thrive, during the Nazi regime by having to balance the appearance of resistance with collaborative actions. One has no doubt that even if they are fictional characters, similar real-life people could easily be found. Even the Jews that flit onto and out of scenes with regularity are no more than caricatures as they show the wealthy and formerly powerful minority with the means to escape the tightening Nazi snare. Still, the generic impressions left by these one-dimensional characters drives the plot better than any fully-developed character because one knows what to expect from them. There are no doubts to Schlegel’s propensity for extreme behavior, or Adele’s greed, or Manet’s bribery skills. This general understanding of these secondary characters allows readers to focus on the real drama taking place within Lucien.
The Paris Architect is not all doom-and-gloom, although it is easy to get sucked down into the despair that comes with a seemingly hopeless situation. As Lucien evolves from the self-centered egoist to genuine humanitarian, the faith generated by his invisible hiding spots, as well as the courage of those hiding in such spots, infuses the entire story with hope – hope that good will prevail, that humanity’s compassion will out match mankind’s cruelty, that even the bleakest of situations is survivable in some regards and that all bad deeds are punishable. Lucien may be somewhat detestable in the beginning with his hatred of his wife, his anti-Semitism, his mistress, and especially his greed, but he definitely undertakes a metamorphosis that peels away the negative influences of his life and allows him to show readers his true self. In that aspect, The Paris Architect is a beautiful story of change, an adult’s coming-of-age story.
The action is fierce, the pacing blindingly fast, and the architectural details intricate. Combined with the thoroughly developed Lucien and his generic secondary cast, these elements create a novel that is spectacular in its scope and vivid in its imagery. The Paris Architect may be a glimpse into a significant, life-altering period in time in Paris’ long history of existence, but it is also a fascinating study in human nature and the broad spectrum of behavior one can find in any population. For all his faults, Lucien crawls under a reader’s skin and makes one care about his flaws as well as his innate goodness. The emphasis on people rather than on ideology makes it easy for readers to get lost in the plot, so absorbed in what is happening that the ending comes as a shock. With all this in its favor, it is no wonder The Paris Architect is October’s Indie Pick as well as a Bloggers Recommend selection for October.