THE LAST RESTAURANT IN PARIS
In enemy-occupied Paris, as the locals go to bed starving and defeated by the war, music and laughter spills through the door of a little restaurant, crowded with German soldiers. The owner Marianne moves on weary feet between its packed tables, carrying plates of steaming, wholesome food for the enemy officers. Her smile is bright and sparkling, her welcome cordial. Nobody would guess the hatred she hides in her heart.
That night, the restaurant closes its doors for the final time. In the morning, the windows are scratched with the words ‘traitor and murderer’. And Marianne has disappeared without a trace…
Years later, Marianne’s granddaughter Sabine stands under the faded green awning, a heavy brass key in her hand, staring at the restaurant left to her by the grandmother she never met. Sabine has so many questions about herself. Perhaps here she can find answers, but she knows she isn’t welcome. Marianne was hated by the locals and when Sabine discovers they blamed her for the terrible tragedy that haunts the pretty restaurant, she is ready to abandon her dark legacy.
But when she finds a passport in a hidden compartment in the water-stained walls, with a picture of a woman who looks like her grandmother but has a different name, she knows there must be more to Marianne’s story. As she digs into the past, she starts to wonder: was her grandmother a heroine, not a traitor? What happened to her after the tragic night when she fled from her restaurant? And will the answer change her own life forever?
A haunting and compelling story of love, strength, and sacrifice in Nazi-occupied Paris as one brave young woman risks everything to save the lives of those around her.
Lily Graham was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was a journalist before turning to writing fiction full-time.
She has been telling stories since she was a child, starting with her imaginary rabbit, Stephanus, and their adventures in the enchanted peach tree in her garden, which she envisioned as a magical portal to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree.
She’s never really got out of the habit of making things up, and still thinks of Stephanus rather fondly.
Lily now lives on the Suffolk coast with her husband, from where she brings her love for the sea and country-living to her fiction.
Her novels have been published worldwide and translated into multiple territories.
“Unfortunately, the beautiful village of Lamarin is fictional, but it was, in part inspired by Simiane-la-Rotonde, a commune in Haute-Provence, where the lavender rolls out its purple carpet every year”
PARIS, 1987 – GILBERT
“The old antiquarian bookstore was a sliver amongst the larger pastel-coloured shops on the leafy Parisian street of Rue Cardinet. It was called Librairie d’antiquites de Geroux but was, nonetheless, as much a part of the Batignolles village as the Saturday farmers’ market, the square, or the tourists retracing the steps of impressionist painter Alfred Sisley. The only other building that seemed as much a part of the furniture was the abandoned restaurant on the corner, like one of those unfortunate heirloom pieces that tends to clash with everything. Most people believed it to be cursed or haunted as a result of what had happened there during the Occupation, when the former owner had poisoned all of her customers one night. A fact that had turned to legend over the intervening years”
“Each of us is told a story about how we begin. One that starts with the people who come before us, providing the foundation on which we build ourselves. Yet when that story shifts, unexpectedly, so do we. Our lives becoming feet made of clay”
“A week ago that’s what I thought, but now I realise how much I’ve needed to speak about it. I’ve held it inside for so long, this part of me buried in darkness – it feels good, somehow, to finally let it see the light. To speak of my brother, to remember him, not just as a victim, but as a person”
“He’d never understand them, his supposed ‘betters’, and that was the truth. His father, who had never learned to read or write and never had much more than a farthing to his name, had more honour and true gentility in his finger than the whole lot of them combined as far as he was concerned”
“When you lose someone that you’ve known your whole life, pretty much, it’s like you don’t just mourn the person you lost at the end, you mourn everything that happened before. All those memories wash over you, like a tide, and it’s so easy to get cast adrift”
“To save her people, she served the enemy”
Lily Graham is a multi genre author, who writes both contemporary and WWII novels, although I have so far only read books from the latter category, something I aim to address as soon as my schedule allows.
I marvel at authors who can still be inspired to write diverse, unique and interesting storylines in the world of WWII fiction, however, Lily takes things to a whole new level with this compelling saga. No! It wasn’t perfect, there were a couple of typos and other anomalies…
However… If you only have the opportunity, or desire, to read one WWII book in 2023, then please make it this one!
The story opens in 1987, in the Batignolles village of Paris. Antiquarian bookshop owner Gilbert Geroux, is one of the few remaining residents who can remember the terrors and horrors of WWII. The Nazi occupation of his beloved hometown and Country and the part which the still derelict restaurant Luberon, on the corner of the street, played in events during that fateful period. The restaurant where, as a teenaged boy, he had helped its then new owner, Marianne Blanchet, prepare the rundown building for business and make it the success it had gone on to be.
All, despite initial opposition from the local population, who on realising that Marianne’s backers were in part high ranking officers of the occupying Nazi party, had refused to believe that she was not a collaborator. Marianne is reluctant to take Gilbert and his hot-headed younger brother Henri into her confidence too much, as she fears for their safety. However, when it comes to her attention that Gilbert has joined the local branch of the Resistance chapter, their relationship subtly changes and an unwritten understanding is forged between them, when it is apparent that they are both fighting from the same corner, albeit in different ways and for separate personal outcomes. Until that fateful night in 1943, when a young man’s world is shattered twice in one evening, his trust in someone he had come to respect and admire is destroyed, and his faith in the ideal that all his fellow Resistance team are fighting for the same freedoms as himself, are tossed aside.
Into Gilbert’s still raw memories, steps one Sabine Dupris who, after so many years of searching, has been authenticated as Marianne’s granddaughter and only surviving family member. Sabine’s mother Marguerite has recently gone to her grave, not knowing that she had been adopted by the couple she had always believed to be her natural parents and who Sabine had always known as her only grandparents. The shock for both Sabine and Gilbert, of uncovering two entirely different lifetimes of events surrounding Marianne, about which neither knew anything of the other, is palpable and it takes some time for them to build any bond of friendship and mutual trust. Marianne, has however, left several clues to her past, which the two of them uncover together during their searches through the remains of the restaurant. So with the blessing of Sabine’s husband Antoine, the pair begin to piece together the life of a woman who was both selfish and single-mindedly focussed; whilst selfless, faithful and remorseful, until the end of her short life, and how that impacted on them both, and continues to do so.
Their search takes the reader back to 1926, when nine-year-old Elodie Clairmont, daughter of a French woman (who has just died) and her married English lover, is collected from her Paris apartment and taken to England, to her father’s home. His wife doesn’t want this cuckoo in the nest, although Elodie’s much older stepbrother Freddie and she, soon become firm friends, so Elodie is packed off to boarding school during term-time and is returned to Batignolles, France for the holidays, into the care of her maternal grandmother Marguerite Renaux, whom she has never met. The two soon become firm friends and fellow bakers for Marguerite’s small village restaurant business. Elodie also becomes close friends with Marguerite’s neighbour and his son Jacques Blanchet, who has also only recently lost his own mother, so knows exactly the turmoil Elodie is experiencing. Jacques is an avid ornithologist and bird befriender, so when several years have elapsed and his dream job comes along as an apprentice researcher at a Bird Observatory, on an island off the German coast, Elodie encourages him to follow his heart, much as he has already captured hers. Before leaving, Jacques, who is a Jew and can see the writing on the wall as WWII grows ever closer, obtains a forged set of identification papers, just in case he needs an emergency escape route home, and an engagement ring for Elodie. The pair marry quickly and on one his infrequent trips home from the island and following several miscarriages, a baby is conceived who will survive to full term. Tragedy strikes twice for Elodie and although baby Marguerite brings some joy to her mother, that is not enough to overcome the grief Marianne (as she is now known) has to endure from her double-hand of misery. She convinces herself that she will not be able to see through the fog of despair until she has avenged a terrible crime, so a distance between mother and daughter has to be established, to keep baby Marguerite safe and leave her mother free to do what she must!
Elodie had also befriended the nuns of the local Abbey, particularly Sister Augustine, who is her constant support and confidante, up to and beyond the time of her death, right into the current day, when she is pivotal to Gilbert and Sabine’s search for answers and closure. Can she shine a light on the woman who was Sabine’s grandmother, Marianne Blanchet and restore the good name of a once loved and respected mentor and friend for Gilbert?
This tragically inspiring, beautifully nuanced and textured storyline, is a multi-generational saga, narrated predominantly by Gilbert, Marianne (Elodie) and Sister Augustine. It is roughly divided into two timelines 1926-1943 / 1987-1990 and although the chapters do tend to meander between timeframes as the voice of the narrator dictates, you are always certain whereabouts you are, as each is concise and clearly signposted, with the reasons for any slight detours always relevant to the flow of the story.
The writing is evocative, poignant and totally captivating. A wartime City devastated, families divided and friendships torn apart, often in the name of faith and religion, by those who would appease and serve their captors in the hope of survival and eventual freedom, being pitted against their fellow countrymen willing to suffer and endure abject poverty in an effort to thwart the invaders at every opportunity and fight the battle for victory from within. It’s contemporary counterpart, is a Paris full of life and a population for whom the scars of war are a mere memory, fading with the passage of time. However, for the few remaining brave souls who have never forgotten, there are still some long-held secrets of heritage and heroism to be uncovered and wrongs to be righted.
Lily pays great attention to the detail and descriptive qualities with which she paints the physical location of this storyline. She teased the ‘armchair traveller’ in me, with a real sense of time and place I could almost step into, and an atmosphere which lingered long after I had closed the final page.
The entire, extensive cast of multi-faceted characters are wonderfully drawn and developed. Whilst they are all, by necessity of circumstances, often complex and emotional, volatile and passionate; they are addictively genuine, believable and authentic to the roles which have been created for them. Although Marianne is portrayed as someone with a strong sense of purpose, high moral fibre and an advocate for doing the right thing, I’m still not certain I can correlate that she allowed those beliefs to override the overwhelming desire she had shown to bear a child for Jacques, a daughter who she may now never see grow into a young lady, should her plans go wildly askew. The profound complexity of her motivations and the vying raw emotions she was experiencing, must surely, have somewhat coloured her judgement? Her fate and her bravery in accepting the inevitable price she knew she had to pay was never in question, however, the true actions of her crime (if ever there was one), are known only to one other living person, who has held their counsel and would have taken the knowledge to their grave had circumstances so dictated.
The dynamics of a family separated by a stretch of water and the anathema of class distinction, a tragedy so devastating that revenge and vengeance were the only antidotes, the abject guilt and grief of the accidental consequences of actions which were never intended to harm all their victims.
What typically makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by some amazing authors who fire my imagination, stimulate my senses and stir my emotions. This storyline gave more than I could have hoped for on just about every front, so thanks for some lovely memories to treasure, Lily.
A complimentary kindle download of this book for review, was made available by publisher Bookouture and supplied by NetGalley.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion, and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However, some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
Thank you for taking the time to read my review, I appreciate your support.