From Goodreads: 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.
Written by an expert whose knowledge imbues every page, this story becomes more gripping with every life the architect tries to save.
☺ ☺ ☺
I picked up this book based on its very promising storyline. The cover, as well, is beautiful and catching. Several reviews have likened this book to Sarah’s Key—a novel that I haven’t read yet but that comes highly recommended. Based in Paris, this book fit well into my recent reading, which has mostly been set in the same city.
So I was ready to be swept off my feet, but unfortunately wasn’t. The descriptions of Paris were well written, and the author’s knowledge and love of architecture certainly shone through and gave this book an interesting angle. But the characters did not come to life for me. Emotionally, I didn’t feel vested in them.
There are a lot of characters in this book, and most of them seem based on a formula rather than real life: Lucien, the flawed main character, who undergoes a transformation for the better after two people die because of a mistake he made. Monsieur Manet, the rich industrialist, who hires Lucien to build hiding spaces for Jews. Adele, the beautiful fashion designer, who has no trouble cavorting with evil Gestapo officers. Bette, the equally beautiful assistant, who has a heart of gold and the guts to stand up to the Nazis. Major Herzog, the well-educated engineer, who loves architecture and art more than Hitler, which makes a friendship with Lucien possible. Colonel Schlegal, the heartless Nazi, who gets a kick out of torturing people—whether they are Jewish or not. In addition, there are plenty of other people who drive parts of the story but are otherwise not necessary and thus not very well defined. At times, I had trouble keeping up with all of them.
Just like the characters, the story itself feels formulaic as well. In a short interview included at the end of the edition I read, Belfoure explains that he approached writing this book the same way he wrote a thesis. I could tell that he did a lot of research, but I felt like the plot was not always well enough fleshed out to transform the story from a thesis into something gripping. Rationally, it makes sense to give Lucien an assistant with a German uncle and a growing dislike for Lucien or to have the Resistance demand that Lucien destroy one of his beloved buildings. But emotionally, I didn’t feel like it helped the story. Instead of being gripped by the added suspense, I was able to simply accept it as another ploy to move the story forward.
I also had some problems with the language in this book. I think the best scenes are the ones about architecture. It is very clear that this is what the author knows and cares about. These parts of the book flow very well. But there are other parts where the writing is choppy and the tone changes completely and unnecessarily. There are a few instances of sudden cursing that seem jarring because they don’t fit into the regular speech pattern or thought process of the character.
In the end, the story wraps up very quickly and very neatly. It seemed a bit contrived to me, and as I was unable to relate to Lucien throughout the book, I couldn’t quite bring myself to care for his happy ending.
With this, I am wrapping up my second book for my Around the World in 12 Books challenge. I haven’t yet decided what to read next from my challenge list, but that’s fine since I am on my library’s waiting list for Sarah’s Key now.