Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Race For Paris

by Meg Waite Clayton
Harper     2015
336 pages    
 Historical Fiction

Books about World War II seem to be ubiquitous in 2015. My book club read All the Light We Cannot See earlier this year, but I have pretty much resisted reading any of the many other books until Clayton's agent sent me The Race for Paris

Jane is a journalist for a Nashville TN newspaper. She meets Olivia (Liv), a photographer for her husband's New York newspaper,  at a hospital in France shortly after the Normandy invasion. They have been stuck reporting from the hospital for quite some time and have been denied access to the forward movement of the troops because of military regulations and gender barriers. When they meet up with Fletcher, a British photojournalist, they take matters into their own hands, jump into his jeep, and race the allied troops toward the liberation of Paris.
Worried about exposing themselves to the MPs that are tracking them, Jane and Liv send out their articles and photographs anonymously or under Fletcher's name as they move relentlessly forward keeping pace with the troops. Jane muses about why they were putting themselves so prominently into harm's way: "a chance at immortality when mortality had you by the throat." They see it all and report on it all. Liv takes extraordinary risks to catch the action with her camera while Jane types up her stories on a portable typewriter. Along the way, they both fall for Fletcher, who always is seeking to protect them—even when they don't want to be protected. The three bond in a powerful way that sustains them and reverberates throughout the rest of their lives.

The Race for Paris is filled with relentless action that is vividly represented in the text. For example, Jane reports: "Liv moved into the valley to better photograph the fleeing Germans, and because she did, Fletcher and I did as well. We went down toward the confetti of paper and clothing and supplies, medical paraphernalia and food packages. The twisted metal of abandoned vehicles. Blackened trees. Well-creased letters stuck in the mud, and frayed photographs of wives, of children, of parents and siblings, of sisters and brothers. Sprawling tangles of hooves and necks and manes and bleeding horseflesh, and corpses." At the same time that they are reporting on the action, Jane poignantly reflects: "I wanted to be in a place where the sun always shone and the world was quiet, no gunshots in the distance, no stench of death."
American Reporters including Kirkpatrick and Miller

Clayton says that she spent years researching the women reporters and photographers of World War II, including Margaret Burke White, Helen Kirkpatrick, and Lee Miller. At the heading of each chapter, there is a quote from a war reporter or photographer, and the text is peppered with references to other famous wartime personalities, including Ernie Pyle and Earnest Hemingway. It is obvious that Clayton took enormous care with the historical accuracy of the novel. For the most part, the plot moves along, with some scenes breathtakingly compelling. I wanted the climax of the book to occur about 50 pages before if actually happened, but as Liv becomes more and more reckless in her photography, I knew that something tragic was about to happen—and then it did.

The Race for Paris is not a beach read. It is designed to appeal to the World War II historical reader as well as the reader interested in women's rights and women's history. I am none of those people, but I was completely captivated by the story and the charm of the characters. I can only imagine how consumed Clayton must have been as she researched and wrote this most compelling novel. I recommend it. The Race for Paris has already appeared on several "Best Books" lists including the BBC and Bookreporter.

Meg Waite Clayton's website.
A review in Bookreporter.
An article from the BBC website about American women reporters during WW2.

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