There are some stories that are impossible to get out of your head once you’ve finished reading them. Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris is one of those stories.
Told from three different perspectives across a couple of different timelines, The Lost Girls of Paris shines a light on the little-known experiences of British SOE agents who operated in Nazi-occupied areas during World War II.
Less than six months after the end of World War II, young widow Grace Healey finds an abandoned suitcase in Grand Central Terminal and, out of curiosity, opens it to find a dozen photographs—all of different women—within. After some preliminary investigating on her part, she finds out that the trunk belonged to Eleanor Trigg, a woman who oversaw Allied female spies during the war. Intrigued by her findings, Grace sets off on an unyielding investigation to find out what happened to the twelve women, including a single mother named Marie, and find meaning in life after the war.
I have always been fascinated by the World War II time period, specifically the incredible cultural shifts that happened as a result of so many people, men and women, being sent off to war. Women’s stories during this time especially fascinate me. While we’re now starting to hear more about their lives and roles during the war, they’re still very much some of the most ignored players in World War II. We hear about the front lines and the soldiers, but not often about the women working behind the scenes or contributing more than just smiles. These stories are really only told through literature at this point.
For those of you who have read some of the book reviews I’ve written in the past, you’ll notice that I can’t help but read any and every story I can get my hands on that focuses on the female experience during World War II. From alternative histories involving women in combat to dramas detailing “normal life” in such a worrying time, the strength, courage, and passion of ordinary women who do extraordinary things during wartime never cease to amaze me.
And so, when I came across Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris, I knew I needed to read it.
I’ll admit that, before reading this novel, I had very little knowledge of SOE and the brave female spies who helped turn the tide of the war. My only exposure to the group was through my love of Agent Carter (we discover in season two that she joined up during the war) and bingeing all of Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits on Netflix. While both of these provide helpful baseline knowledge about SOE and helped color a bit of my reading, they don’t even begin to do the women of SOE justice.
The Lost Girls of Paris most definitely does.
First and foremost, this novel gives us all a really fascinating insight into the SOE and the politics around sending women on such dangerous missions. These women came from different walks of life and served in the most risky ways, knowing full well that they had the least chance of returning home out of anyone. Especially given how little training they received.
While the use of different perspectives across multiple time frames to tell stories can be a bit of a tired trope at times, Pam Jenoff’s incorporation of it in The Lost Girls of Paris is really masterful. Though it’s effective in drawing out the mystery of the women in the photographs’ fates and building tension, the most important thing it does for this novel is give as much context as possible for what the incredible female SOE agents really went through.
From Marie’s perspective, we’re able to glean what the day-to-day training routine and actually being on the ground in France might have felt like. Even the most mundane tasks, like making a trip to a bakery for bread, are anxiety-inducing. More importantly, though, Marie’s perspective humanizes the women in the program. Though they do extraordinary (not to mention extraordinarily risky) things, these women are not expertly trained or exceptional in any obvious way. They’re just ordinary women doing what it takes to serve their country and survive.
And then there’s the perspective of the woman in charge of the female SOE agents, Eleanor Trigg. The sections she narrates really provide an insight into how, even though they were just as official as their male counterparts, the female agents (as well as their handler) received very little support or even respect from SOE. The creation of the female agents program is treated almost as a favor to “the fairer sex” rather than a wartime necessity. Eleanor Trigg is forced to endure sexism and bite her tongue regularly because her agents’ survival depends on it, which is really fascinating to see at her level in the organization.
But perhaps the most fascinating and truly telling perspective is that of Grace Healey because, when it comes to familiarity with female SOE agents, she is very much in the same boat as the reader. The fact that we in 2019 have the same familiarity with female SOE agents as a young woman who lived through the war is testament to how criminally undervalued their efforts and achievements have been. These women put their lives on the line for the greater good, but have been largely ignored and overlooked by history. Grace Healey’s efforts to uncover the truth about the women in the photographs works to rectify that both in the world of the novel as well as the real world.
Though these three women are very different and have clearly distinct voices, it’s their similarities (both in personality and situation) that make them compelling narrators. They each have their faults and flaws, but they’re also strong in ways even they didn’t think possible. After all, none of them are particularly notable in terms of upbringing or celebrity. But their fierceness and unwillingness to give up, even in the face of the constant sexism they’re forced to face, make them formidable.
The thing that connects them most, however, is the fact that they’re all lost in one way or another. The word “Lost” in The Lost Girls of Paris refers to quite a few aspects of these women’s lives and works on two different levels: literal and figurative.
The literal level is relatively easy to decipher. The twelve women in Eleanor Trigg’s suitcase are literally lost. Their whereabouts and fates are unknown, even by those whose job it is/was to know these things. Grace is lost to her family as she’s hiding out in New York City unbeknownst to almost everyone. And Eleanor Trigg? Without spoiling anything, I can say that Eleanor Trigg has gone where no one can find her. These three women are literally lost to all those who know (or knew about) them.
But it’s important to also consider how they’re all figuratively “lost” as well. Each one of these women is on a journey to find themselves in one way or another. They can’t quite figure out how they got into their current situations (or even where that situation actually is), but they all realize that they’re adrift in some way. It’s only by following their hearts and their passion that they’re able to find themselves once again.
As you might imagine from the subject matter of this novel (or even just the fact that it’s set during World War II), this novel can be pretty heartbreaking at times. Sadly, each one of the women suffers from a devastating loss. There’s one loss in particular that happens about 2/3 of the way through the book that had me struggling to blink back tears. On top of the losses, there’s a certain hopelessness that pervades a lot of this novel that’s enough to make your heart ache for the women as they work to power through.
Let me be clear: The Lost Girls of Paris is not a fun or easy read. It does not pull any punches when it comes to describing just how terrible and horrific war can be, both on the ground and at home. But that’s also what makes this novel beautiful and worth reading. The heartbreaking events will stick with you long after you’ve finished the novel and make you reflect on just how strong the women must’ve been to have endured them.
Going in to this novel, you don’t have to know much about SOE or the brave female agents they deployed. However, you should know that The Lost Girls of Paris is very much historical fiction. While reading, I was taken aback by the direction that this novel takes toward the end because it didn’t seem like something that could have been swept under the rug in real life. It was only until after I read the author’s note about the liberties that she took that I realized that, although plausible, the ending is not actual fact (at least, that we know of). That being said, even if the large reveal is fiction, the fact that it’s believable is incredibly informative and telling of the time. After all, just the fact that the ending could have happen goes to show just how terribly the women were treated during the war and by history.
Regardless of the accuracy of the events described in The Lost Girls of Paris, there’s no denying that this is a powerful novel of love, loss, and duty. The stories of these three fierce women are woven together beautifully and effortlessly. While some of the things they faced or uncovered were difficult to read, I had a hard time putting this book down.
I’d like to think that I would’ve been able to do or accomplish what any of the women in this novel did, but, to be honest, I have no idea if I could’ve. What I do know is that these women had me rooting for them, angry for them, and crying alongside them as they navigated their tough choices, sexism, dangerous situations, and inevitable devastation.
If you’re a fan of stories of underappreciated women doing the unthinkable, novels set around World War II, or historical fiction, you’re bound to be enthralled by Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris.
The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, and your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!