The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
Published: October 2013
Genre: historical fiction
In 1942 Paris, gifted architect Lucien Bernard accepts a commission that will bring him a great deal of money and maybe get him killed. But if he’s clever enough, he’ll avoid any trouble. All he has to do is design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man, a space so invisible that even the most determined German officer won’t find it. He sorely needs the money, and outwitting the Nazis who have occupied his beloved city is a challenge he can’t resist.
But when one of his hiding spaces fails horribly, and the problem of where to hide a Jew becomes terribly personal, Lucien can no longer ignore what’s at stake. The Paris Architect asks us to consider what we owe each other, and just how far we’ll go to make things right.
Architect Lucien Bernard is trying to make ends meet and stay under the radar when he receives a huge commission to design a small, clever hiding space for a Jewish man. Not wanting anything to do with the Resistance but desperately needing the money, Lucien’s ego sweeps him up and he agrees to play the game against the Nazis. But the Nazis know of his architectural talent and pay for him to design manufacturing buildings for ammunition. As the number of clever hiding spaces grow, the factories built, and hiding spaces discovered, Lucien is torn between collaboration and resistance, between prestige and humanity.
What a morally conflicting and ambiguous, unique, and haunting novel. This was unlike any other WWII novel I’ve read.
Though the writing was distanced, it was the concept that floored me. We see WWII and the Nazi/Jewish conflict at a distance. Of course what the Nazis did was wrong and the most awful thing ever. Ever. I’m not arguing that. But Belfoure places us in the time: the French population (perhaps most of Europe?) genuinely did not like Jewish people — nothing like the Nazis felt, but it’s true nonetheless. Paris was easy for the Nazis to occupy because the French wanted nothing to do with the Nazis but they also wanted nothing to do with the Jews. Behave, stay low, neither resist nor collaborate, and perhaps one would survive. That was the mentality. Lucien’s character shows that in spades — but he’s still young and he wants his name to be known for his designs. All the income was helpful too. It’s not until the French see him as a collaborator, and the Nazis see him as a member of the Resistance, that it hits him completely: he cannot play both sides. He either saves human lives, or he destroys his country. Humanity wins, but at a cost — and his solution is very clever.
I was impressed with the architectural designs, too. These aren’t hidden rooms behind library doors, another hidey-hole in the basement, or another wall in an attic. Lucien’s designs blend in so well with the architecture of the existing building and room that it takes really unique circumstances for the Nazis to discover them one by one. Oh, how my heart pound. The anxious intensity, the drawn out scenes when the Nazis were on the other side of the Jews’ hiding spot…I couldn’t breathe.
If you’re looking for a new author to try or a unique WWII historical novel, definitely pick up Charles Belfoure’s The Paris Architect. It’ll haunt you for weeks after finishing.