Every now and then, there is a book whose premise is so interesting that I feel the need to read it right there. Sometimes, it is worth it, and other times, it is not. The former was the case for The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.
The Paris Architect involves Lucien Bernard, a gentile architect in Nazi-occupied Paris who is given a commission by a wealthy industrialist to design secret hiding spaces for Jewish people. As someone who is initially not empathetic to their plight, he accepts it to get some money and for the challenge. However, when one of the hideouts goes terribly awry, and when the hidings become personal, Lucian can no longer deny the reality of the situation.
One can easily see how intriguing the plot is. It got me emotionally invested, especially during the episodes when the Jewish people used the spaces that Lucien built. I wanted the Gestapo not to find them just so they could be safe. In addition, the novel brings up the moral ambiguities present during wartime. It depicts most French people as mainly apathetic to the Jewish situation. However, this was not because they were anti-Semitic (even though there was prior). This was mainly because they wanted to survive, and if they were caught hiding Jews, they would have been executed by the Gestapo in one way or another.
The main characters (with the exception of Schlegal who is essentially a cartoon villain) are well developed. All of them have reasons for why they do what they do during the Occupation. During the course of the novel, Lucien takes in a 12-year-old Jewish boy named Pierre. Pierre’s family was taken away from him and feels grateful for the architect being a fatherly figure. Since he feels that Lucien went so much out of his way to protect him, Pierre decides that he should do the same when he finds out that someone has been spying on the architect.
Additionally, one could easily tell how much investment the author put into it. Belfoure is an actual architect. This explains how he goes into much detail about the buildings, rooms, and the hideouts. Even though I am not into architecture, it was still fun to learn. Speaking of detail, Belfoure put a lot of historical ones into the story despite some mistakes like using the word dumbass, which was not identified as a word until the late 1950s – nearly two decades after this book’s events. To be fair, this is not as egregious as One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus. That took place in 1875, but it used words like abort and phrases like coyote ugly.
Despite my praise, I will admit that I did not connect with the story as much as I wanted. This was mostly because of Lucien being a terrible person. He is willing to commit infidelity for a commission and even has a mistress at the beginning of the book. He even assumes at one point that a woman that he is seeing has a lover after she doesn’t immediately come to the door. I somehow could not get past that, which prevented me from being emotionally invested in his transformation.
Once again, I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Mark Bramhall. This is not the first time that Bramhall has voiced a book that I have read. He was Reverend Drew in Secrets of Eden, and he was fantastic as he emoted about doubting his faith and being a possible suspect in the case. In The Paris Architect, he delivers a variety of convincing emotions as Lucien, especially when one of the hideouts goes wrong. Bramhall also puts on French and German accents. He does a good job with making the French dialect believable, but his interpretation of the German one was iffy as it sounded pretty French at times. In addition, I could barely tell the difference when he voiced the female characters. I imagine how hard audiobook narration is, especially when one has to voice several characters and perform a variety of accents.
All in all, The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure is a pretty good read. The premise is interesting enough to get people hooked, yet readers might be turned off by how terrible and indifferent Lucien is at the beginning. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone interested in World War II-based historical fiction and in architecture. In one way or another, it will keep readers on their toes.
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