Michelle Zackheim's 'Last Train to Paris' Is an Immersive Picture of 1930s France
Michele Zackheim's latest novel, Last Train to Paris (Europa Editions), began as a research project on a distant relative of the author's who was kidnapped in Paris by a German citizen in 1937. But at some point, imagination took over and project became a sweeping historical novel that captures the human toll of World War II.
The novel follows Rose Manon, a journalist who grew up in Nevada but escaped her unhappy family and home life for New York City as soon as she could. In 1933 her ambition and talent for languages takes her to a newsroom in Paris where she quickly rises to be a foreign correspondent taking frequent trips to Berlin. Throughout it all, she engages in a delicate balancing act, that of a woman in a man's field and as a person with Jewish ancestry at a time and place where admitting such a thing can be dangerous.
The novel is fascinating for many reasons. Zackheim's research is clearly extensive, and her prose is immersive. She has a knack for recreating the historical scenes with equal parts romance and harsh realism. She can evoke an old time newsroom with "smoke ... hanging in the air, adding its aroma to the miasma of paper and ink" yet in the same scene draw attention to the main character's sense of embarrassment about her sticky clothes and to a cockroach or two.
Her characters are similarly complex. Though the dialogue in many parts is clunky and unrealistic, the characters she draws are very real, right down to their many faults. Some characters, such as Rose's newsroom boss are overtly racist and crass. Yet even the characters we root for are imperfect, including the leading lady herself.
Yet it is in Rose that Zackheim's true success with the story lies. Rose is a complicated person, one with ambition and drive and confidence, but a woman who is also often confused about her own life, still trying to find just who she is in the midst of a world that is slowly unravelling.
Rose is not the most angelic or likable character by any means. She's short tempered and often unforgiving. She can be uncaring towards her own family and distant with her friends. Yet she also is deeply affected by things around her. She is often unnerved by the political events she sees up close as a reporter, by the problems faced by her friends, and by her own outbursts of anger and callousness. But above all, she is a woman who respects herself and expects others to do the same in an era when such a thing was far from assured.
There is always something to be said for prickly women, women who are more concerned with being right than being likable, and Rose Manon is definitely one such heroine worth reading. The story is a gripping historical novel with a human look at a monumental time, with an eye for detail and a strong female lead.