Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

With an uncle who was involved in the La Résistance during much of the war, my interest was piqued with this book’s description. With Paris being one of those cities that, unlike many others, has a personality often larger and more tangible than events around it, the fate of those left to carry on during the occupation is explored in

Les Parisiennes

Many films and books have explored the hardships of war, particularly in Paris, but few have focused solely on the women, their struggles and challenges that threatened their survival with shortages, dangers and frankly, a madman with a mission in charge.  While reading this book, there was one moment that kept returning to me, from The Monuments Men, a scene with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland.  Hoping to get help from Valland, now in jail and viewed as a ‘collaborator’, Damon explains that if it weren’t for the Americans, she would be speaking German.  Her response is both intrinsic to who she is, and the French belief in their own selves. “No. If it was not for you, I might be dead. But I would still be speaking French.”

Her character is explored further but the line does, for me, give of insight into attitude that helped them face the challenges the women of would encounter, as detailed by Anne Sebba.  Told in chronological form covering a ten year period beginning in 1939, the stories unfold, each in their own voice, piecemeal: readers can’t help but be intrigued and engaged as they move from the well-known (Coco Chanel, Colette) through those less recognizable to modern eyes, all facing hardships, choices and often recriminations after the occupation.

From the early lead up to war, when celebration and an almost reckless display of wealth and concentrated enjoyment of the city and its myriad delights is soon replaced with choices, betrayals, recriminations, hardships and later, the sotto voiced whispers and glances as those who survived using their wits and occasionally trading their favors to ensure the next hour, day or even meal.  While circumstances (and choices) for each woman were unique, the goal was ultimately to survive long enough to see the Nazis leave, abandoned by their men (more than 1.5 million French soldiers in German POW camps by the end of 1940), abandoned by their government and oftentimes the world. The choices these women faced were horrid, and Anne Sebba shows us their options, their thoughts and actions, allowing us to understand and perhaps empathize with the eventual outcome, bringing the history and time to light in some small way.

Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

Title: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation
Author: Anne Sebba
Genre: Biography / Memoir, European History, France, World War II
Published by: St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 1250048591
Published on: 18 October 2016
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 480
Audio Length: 15 Hours
Rated: five-stars
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What did it feel like to be a woman living in Paris from 1939 to 1949? These were years of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets until – finally – renewal and retribution. Even in the darkest moments of Occupation, glamour was ever present. French women wore lipstick. Why?

It was women who came face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis – perhaps selling them clothes or travelling alongside them on the metro, where a German soldier had priority over seats. By looking at collaborators to resisters, actresses and prostitutes, as well as teachers and writers, including American women and Nazi wives, spies, mothers, mistresses, fashion and jewellery designers – Anne Sebba shows that women made life-and-death decisions every day, and, in an atmosphere where sex became currency, often did whatever they needed to survive. Her fascinating cast includes both native Parisian women and those living in Paris temporarily: American women and Nazi wives, spies, mothers, mistresses, and fashion and jewellery designers. Some like the heiress Béatrice Camondo or novelist Irène Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like lesbian racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; only a handful, like Coco Chanel, retreated to the Ritz with a German lover.

In enthralling detail Sebba explores the aftershock of the Second World War. How did women who survived to see the Liberation of Paris come to terms with their actions and those of others? Although politics lies at its heart, Les Parisiennes is the first in-depth account of the everyday lives of women and young girls in this most feminine of cities.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Anne Sebba

Anne Sebba is a biographer, lecturer, and former Reuters foreign correspondent who has written books including That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. She is a member of the Society of Authors Executive Committee. She lives in London.

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