The German occupation of Paris during World War II does not typically evoke scenes combining La Fontaine's Fables, a bookseller's daughter moonlighting as an exotic dancer and a German translator for the Gestapo recreationally masquerading as a Parisian. Nor does it seemingly lend itself as an ideal backdrop for a blossoming romance. Yet, in his novel April in Paris, Michael Wallner takes these unlikely strands and weaves them into a story that is at once romantic, brutal and heart-wrenching.
At the heart of Wallner's story is 21-year-old Cpl. Roth, a German solider whose flawless French leads to an assignment as translator for suspected members of the French Resistance. In an attempt to counteract his long days witnessing broken noses, dislocated fingers and casual torture at the hands of the Gestapo, Roth sheds his German identity after work. Stripped of his uniform, his hobnailed boots and all other German identifiers, he walks the streets of Paris as his French alter-ego, Antoine. As Antoine, he is able to stroll freely along the Pont Royal, abandon his despised role of Other among Parisian civilians and, most importantly, pursue the beautiful Chantal. The daughter of a local bookseller, Chantal instantly, but unknowingly, enchants the solider. In time, Antoine charms her as well and their unlikely romance takes hold. Despite their love, however, neither Antoine nor Chantal are quite who they appear. As a result, invisible lines are crossed that threaten everything both had previously valued.
Throughout the novel, Wallner's talent for both compelling storyline and impeccable details are skillfully displayed: A description of a bomb explosion is juxtaposed with what is left behind: fans, a lace coat, a stuffed poodle . . . perfume. April in Paris is a study of contrasts passionate romance set against wartime suspense, the surprise of polar opposites uniting, and, literally, love as a battlefield. For Roth and Chantal, it is both a fight that will determine their fate and the only fight that matters.
Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.