The Room on Rue Amélie
by Kristin Harmel
An American in Paris.
A Jewish girl coming of age.
A brave English RAF pilot.
In the beginnings of a war that promises horror brought to one’s doorstep, these three will have their lives intertwined with heartbreak and hope, creating bonds that last a lifetime.
They said war would never come to Paris. The City of Lights was thought to be virtually untouchable by the grime and relentless pain that war carries along with it. Surely the atrocities of battle could not darken the beautiful cobbled stones of the boulevards or haunt the halls of the museums full of priceless treasures. Paris was to be revered; all of its timeless beauty preserved and respected. It was meant to be a land of perfection.
When Ruby Benoit arrived as a beautiful, stylish and newly married American woman in Paris, she was full of optimism and romance. Dreams of long strolls under the shadow of the iconic Eiffel Tower, coffee and beignets at chic cafes, and shopping along the Champs-Élysées was surely what her life was destined to become. Her husband Marcel was a respected Parisian well-versed in the beauty of his city and country of birth, and Ruby reveled in all he had to show her. Their apartment was in the heart of Paris, the Eiffel Tower an illuminating beacon to be seen just at the top of her window or enjoyed on her private balcony. The art gallery below was home to ballerinas in flight and elegant danseur noble with turned-out feet and chins tilted in perfect grace. Marcel was the epitome of sophistication and he brought Ruby into his world with equal passion and love. She was swept into the heady romance the city and her husband readily offered as easily as the leaves fall to the ground in autumn, before they are pushed into the streets and gutters by the wind.
But just as quickly as she fell into love with her husband and with Paris, the lights of her marriage and of the city were extinguished. Paris would always be undeniably beautiful, but her marriage was slowly beginning to crumble. With whispers of Hitler and his atrocities against humanity creeping ever closer, Ruby watched with increased dismay as Marcel slipped away from her. Unable to fight on the front with his fellow Parisians due to an illness as a child that left him with a permanent limp, Marcel was instead left to brood and stew with his insecurities, oftentimes taking his frustrations out on his young wife. As the nights became longer and full of loneliness, Ruby stopped waiting for her husband to come home. She didn’t know where he was and she was melancholy at the fact that she found she no longer truly cared. As she experiences an unspeakable loss and wakes to find Marcel no where in sight, Ruby is clear on the fate of her marriage. It – like the splendor and novelty of Paris – is over.
Young Charlotte Dacher faces a few of the same things her neighbor Ruby does, although in a slightly difference sense. She is not taken seriously, much like the alluring and lovely American who lives down the hall. Her parents will forever see her as a little girl; as a toddler picking her way across the apartment floor with nothing of any substance rolling around in her head. But Charlotte is old enough to see things . . . to feel them intensely. The children at school are becoming openly cruel to her, using her religion as a weapon against her and threatening with disgusting violence. Charlotte finds herself ashamed to be a Jew, and doesn’t understand why her parents are holding onto a religion so strongly, especially now that things are turning sour against their people. Jews are having their businesses turned over to the Nazis, are forced to wear a star on their clothing to mark them as different, and there are whispers of things worse happening in the outskirts of the city. As the days turn into weeks and months and hardships begin to fall upon her family, Charlotte fears that the worst is yet to come. She is able to reach out and find some solace in her quiet neighbor Ruby, a woman she so fervently admires, and is thankful for their growing friendship.
Across the pond, Royal Air Force pilot Thomas Clarke is in agony. The despair of losing his beloved mother in the Blitz is almost more than he can bear. He joined the military to leave his mark upon history and to punish the Germans for the horrors they were inflicting, but does it mean anything if he couldn’t save the one person who gave him life and helped him sustain it? Reckless and full of fury, Thomas takes to the air determined to make a difference, only to find himself shot down and on the run from the Nazis. Using the stories he heard running through the veins of the military barracks from men who’d escaped the hunt of the Nazis and made it home, he makes his own way though the countryside and into the city of Paris. What he hopes to find waiting for him behind a red door in a gallery full of gracefully dancing of ballerinas is safety, but what he finds is so much more.
When Marcel is arrested and executed for helping allied pilots get out of France, Ruby decides she must take the work of resistance up in his stead. She manages to sway a hidden alliance into allowing her to join the secret fight against the Germans, and begins using her apartment on Rue Amélie as a safe house. She is only one in a line of other such places working to get pilots out of the city and back onto the battlefields, but she finally feels as if she has a purpose and takes up the mission with renewed fervor. Charlotte, her adolescent neighbor, is involved more than she should be and Ruby hates it, but she doesn’t see any other chance for the Jewish girl’s survival . . . especially now that the girl’s parents have been shipped off to a concentration camp and there is little to no hope for their return.
When Thomas shows up at Ruby’s door seeking asylum while wracked with a terrible fever and countless other injuries, Ruby isn’t sure she can keep him alive. But the time she spends nursing him back to health and the nights they spend lost in each other’s company ends up leaving her changed forever and fills her with a strange sense of hope. After he departs, she cannot stop herself from wondering if he made it home, nor can she help but hope that he may someday find his way back to her . . . in a world that is not riddled with war. In a world where she might find happiness again.
Thomas is anxious to get back into the air and back to fighting the Nazis, if only so he can do his part in ending the war . . . and act that will perhaps enable him to get back to Ruby. His mind is full of thoughts of nothing but her and her smile . . . the softness of her touch and the kindness of her eyes, the way she recites her memories of the poppy fields of California and yearns for a family of her own. There was something between them – he was sure of it – but it just was not the right timing or circumstance. But when Thomas finds himself shot down for a second time, he cannot help but wonder if they are fated to be together as he begins to make his way back to Paris and back to his Ruby.
In a world full of constant danger and pain, Ruby and Charlotte fight to keep some semblance of beauty left in their Paris. Working for the Resistance leaves them in a regular state of worry and fear, but the thought of doing nothing in the face of such abominable crime is an even worse fate. When Thomas makes his way back to the pair of women, he is overwhelmed by their bond as pseudo mother and daughter, and by the love they so willingly and effortlessly shower upon him. Three unlikely outsiders will pull together to fight for what is right and what is true, doing what they can to restore Paris to what it was meant to be – a beautiful city of hope.
The Room on Rue Amélie is the newest novel by Kristin Harmel, an American author best known for her flair at putting the relationships of friends and lovers on delicate display amongst gripping storylines and heartwrenching romance. While the book is a portrait of love (both romantically and for a beloved city) the underlying root of the story is that of friendship. The bond between Ruby and Charlotte is unbreakable, no matter how many times it is tested. Ruby essentially raises Charlotte, albeit with the help of a harsh war and the unnatural realities it brings with it.
This is the first novel I have read by Harmel and I am keen to read another, but I honestly need a bit of a break to recuperate. This book left me a little shell-shocked at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I think the flow and the culmination of events was realistic and appropriate, but it didn’t lessen the sting. I found myself so attached to the characters by the end, all in equal measure, and the beauty in which everything was wrapped up was so sharp that it was at times difficult to read. This time period is always bittersweet; the war left so many people broken in so many ways, and while I love stories based around the hidden resistance network that was instituted by so many brave countrymen and women, I also need a reprieve after the shattering these stories leaves me with.
I give The Room on Rue Amélie 4.5 out of 5 stars and while I do recommend it, please be aware that there are several triggering themes within this story that may leave readers feeling sad. Harmel has a lovely way at turning situations around and creating the light of hope, but the center of the story is heartbreaking. Readers who enjoyed The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman will also enjoy this novel.