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The Last Hours in Paris
By Ruth Druart
Formats and Prices
- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
- Hardcover $28.00 $35.00 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
- Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 19, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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From the author of While Paris Slept comes a story of great love, betrayal, and redemption, set in WWII and 1960s France and England.
"Words are power. They can bring you down, lift you up, make your heart soar, make you fall in love. Or make you hate."
Paris 1944. Elise Chevalier knows what it is to love . . . and to hate. Her fiancé, a young French soldier, was killed by the German army at the Maginot Line. Living amongst the enemy, Elise must keep her rage buried deep within.
Sebastian Kleinhaus no longer recognizes himself. Forced to join the Third Reich and wear a uniform he despises, he longs for a way out. For someone, anyone, to be his salvation.
Brittany 1963. Reaching for the suitcase under her mother’s bed, eighteen-year-old Josephine Chevalier uncovers a secret that shakes her to the core. Determined to find the truth, she travels to Paris where she learns the story of a forbidden love as a city fought for its freedom. Of the last stolen hours before the first light of liberation. And of a betrayal so deep that it would irrevocably change the course of two young lives life forever.
Includes a Reading Group Guide.
“I didn’t even look at you, that first time I saw you.”
“You just saw a uniform.”
“Yes, and it frightened me.”
“Well, I didn’t look at you much either.”
She pinched his cheek softly. “Really?”
“I knew you didn’t want to be looked at. Especially not by me. But I noticed you.” He played with her fingers. “I found you intriguing.”
“Go on,” she encouraged him.
It touched him that she wanted to hear him talk about her. “And defiant,” he continued. “Brave. I knew you were afraid of those policemen, but you didn’t cower in front of them.” He let go of her fingers. “I admired that.” He ran his hand through her hair. “But I could see you might get yourself into trouble.”
“Did you think you would save me?”
“No.” He gazed at her. “I knew it would be you who would save me.”
Brittany, May 1963
I stare out of the bay window at the sea lashing against the slate-gray rocks, white spray bouncing off jagged edges. Impulsively, I unlatch it, letting in the cries of the seagulls and the tireless sound of the tide. A pair of doves balance on a telegraph wire. They cock their heads toward me, looking at me curiously.
“Élise.” Monsieur Beaufort walks into the room, his voice cutting through me. “Have you finished? I can give you a lift to the station.”
“Thank you.” I close the window, dust the windowsill, and turn toward him, putting on a polite smile. Then I remove my working tunic and follow him down the stairs, hanging the tunic on the back of the kitchen door as we walk through to the driveway.
He opens the car door for me.
“Merci, monsieur.” He’s a gentleman, and I appreciate it. It makes me feel less like his housekeeper and more like a person.
“Do you have any plans for the weekend?” he asks as we drive along the tree-lined roads to the station at Saint-Brieuc.
“Nothing special, lunch at home with my daughter then probably a walk along the beach.”
“How is Joséphine?”
I’m touched that he remembers her name.
“Fine, thank you. She’s taking her baccalauréat next month. She wants to go to university.” I hear the pride in my voice, and just stop myself in time from telling him what a clever girl she is. “She was eighteen last month.”
“Already? She was only a baby when you started working for us.”
“Yes.” I sit back in the seat, wondering if this chapter of my life is over. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Joséphine has safely made it to adulthood, and soon I will tell her the truth. The lies I built around her childhood grew like invisible prison bars, holding me back, trapping me. Only the truth will free me now. At the same time, it terrifies me.
We drive the rest of the way in silence, and I’m relieved when we pull into the station. The train is already there, and I thank Monsieur Beaufort before hurrying onto the platform, where I board an empty carriage and settle down into the old velvet seat. I think about taking a walk with Joséphine this afternoon; on the other hand, I don’t want to distract her from her studies. Once her exams are out of the way, we’ll have more time to talk. Really talk. I see her getting ready to open up her wings and fly away, but I can’t let her go, not until I’ve told her everything she needs to know.
When the train pulls into Lannion, I get off and walk out through the station to the road. Soizic’s old green Renault 4CV sits in the same parking spot as it does every Saturday when she picks me up at the station. “Bonjour, Soizic.” I open the passenger door and get in, kissing her lightly on both cheeks. “How are you?”
“Joséphine won’t be back till later today,” she says in way of reply.
My heart sinks, but I gather myself before replying, “Did she go to a friend’s for lunch?”
“Yes, Hervé’s.” She turns the key in the ignition, and we pull away.
I glance sideways at her. “She seems to be spending a lot of time with him.”
“It’s nice for her to have a boyfriend. Don’t worry, I’ve spoken to her about boys and…” She trails off, leaving the insinuation hanging there.
“I’ll talk to her too.” I try to reassert my position as Joséphine’s mother, something I’ve been doing since she was born.
Focused on the road, Soizic raises an eyebrow. I turn away from her and stare out of the window. The sailboats in Baie de Sainte-Anne have been abandoned by the sea and lie there on their sides, waiting for the next tide. The sea has swept away everything in its path that is not anchored or rooted in the sand. Sometimes I wish I could sweep away the past like that, let the sea take it far out into the ocean where it will never be found again. But the past is part of who we are, and it’s time for me to face it. Time for Joséphine to know it.
“I’ve made lunch.” She glances at me. “Onion soup, and there’s fresh baguette.”
“Merci.” I’ve come to understand this is Soizic’s way of showing she cares. And she does. Despite her caustic retorts and cold manner, I know she cares very much for Joséphine, and even for me. We might not share the same blood, but Soizic has become part of our little family. I’m just not sure whether she’s taken the role of mother, grandmother, or father. Sometimes it feels like all three.
We turn the corner and pull in at the side of the old stone cottage that’s been my home since I left Paris. The smell of garlic and onions greets me as we go inside, and I’m hungry now. Soizic ladles out the soup; melted cheese strung out among the croutons and fleshy onion rings. Before she picks up her spoon, she makes the sign of the cross. “God, thank you for this food.”
“Amen,” I murmur.
We eat in a companionable silence, one born of having known each other for so many years. Soizic’s never been one for small talk, and I’m used to her ways. Taciturn is the word, but then she has her reasons. We’re just finishing our soup when Joséphine bursts into the kitchen, excitement shining out of her bright blue eyes. “Maman, guess what?” She doesn’t even say hello.
I’m thrilled to see her so happy and stand to kiss her cheek. “Bonjour, Joséphine.” Then I hold my hand out to Hervé, who’s standing next to her. He turns a shade pinker then takes it, shaking it firmly. He seems like a nice boy.
“Guess what?” Joséphine repeats. She looks at Hervé then back at me. “There’s a school trip to England.”
Joséphine loves English; she’s been dreaming of going there ever since the Beatles released their first album last month. I hear her singing the songs sometimes, “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me.” I look at my daughter, her face full of youth and excitement, and, with a familiar pang of longing, I’m reminded of her father. She has the same joie de vivre, the same zest for life, wanting to taste it all. But how my heart is heavy, knowing I’ll have to disappoint her.
“Joséphine,” I say. “I’m sorry. We can’t afford it.”
Her eyes turn a shade darker and her mouth drops, her dimples disappearing. “But you don’t even know how much it is. And I have some birthday money left.”
“I know you do.” I squeeze her hand. “But we don’t have that sort of money.”
She lets out a long breath and I feel her whole body deflate. Hervé rolls his lips together, looking away as though embarrassed. Money isn’t the sort of thing one discusses outside family.
“You don’t even have a passport,” Soizic adds.
The word passport sets my pulse racing. She needs to wait a little more, till after her exams, till we’ve had time to talk about everything calmly and carefully.
“I’m sure I could get one!” Joséphine raises her voice, and I feel her exasperation. Instead of helping her fulfill her dreams, we’re hindering her, holding her back.
I turn toward Hervé. “Are you going?”
“I’m going to ask my parents.” He looks at Joséphine. “They might be able to lend you some money.”
“No! That’s out of the question, Hervé!” I’m shocked by his offer; it’s not his place to make it. “There’ll be plenty of other opportunities.” I turn back to Joséphine, bringing the discussion to a close. “You’re very young anyway for such a big trip.” I attempt a peace-making smile.
“Maman, I’m not a little kid anymore.” Joséphine refuses my smile. “I’m sure I could get the money together.” She glances at Soizic then back to me again. “But you don’t want me to go anyway, do you? You don’t even want me to go to Paris. You just want me to stay here in boring Brittany all my life.”
“No, that’s not true!” Her sudden outburst takes me by surprise. “I know you’re not a child.”
“Well, why do you still treat me like one?”
“Joséphine!” Soizic’s eyes turn stony cold. “That’s enough.”
Joséphine sighs loudly. “I’m not going to stay here forever, you know.”
“I said that’s enough.” Soizic stands up, crossing her arms in front of her chest, asserting her position.
This is her house, and we live under her rules. We don’t shout and we don’t fight. I cringe inside, pity for my daughter rising in my chest. This argument isn’t really about the money.
Joséphine stands up. “I don’t care if I don’t go on this trip. I just want to leave this house, and Trégastel. It’s so… so small. And the people are…”
She turns to Hervé, who is looking like he’d rather be anywhere else than where he is right now. She takes his hand and pulls him toward the door.
Brittany, May 1963
“I won’t go either.” Hervé puts his arm around Joséphine as they walk along the coastal route to his house.
She stops in her stride, moving away from him then turning to look at him. “I don’t care about the trip. I’m just fed up with the way we can’t even talk about it. I could find a way of getting the money; I have some saved myself, but Maman doesn’t want me to go. She never wants me to do anything. She’s afraid of everything. Afraid of life!” She pauses for breath. “I’m not even allowed out on a Saturday night.”
“But Saturday’s your mother’s only evening here.”
“Whose side are you on?” Why can’t he see how controlling her mother is?
“I feel sorry for your mum.”
Joséphine narrows her eyes at Hervé. “What?”
“Well, she doesn’t have much money, does she? And she’s all alone.”
“She’s got Soizic. Anyway, that’s her fault. She never wanted to meet anyone. She had offers, but no one was ever good enough.” She starts walking again, a restless energy surging through her when she thinks about how her mother won’t even talk about her own father—Frédéric, shot during the liberation of Paris. Whenever Joséphine brings the subject up, her mother adopts a wary expression and looks away, as though taking herself off into her own secret world.
“I could lend you some money,” Hervé says. “I need to get a passport too. We could go together.”
“What do you need?”
“I don’t know.” He takes her hand and swings it. “A birth certificate, I guess.”
“I’ve never even seen mine.”
“Well, everyone has one. Ask your mum. You can always get a copy of it at the town hall.”
Hervé seems to know more about everything than her, and it annoys her slightly. “I’m going back. I want to look for my birth certificate.”
“Yes. I’m going to show her I’m not a kid. I’m going to get myself a passport.” She kisses him quickly on the cheek and hurries home, thinking that Soizic and her mother will probably be out in the fields, bringing the cows back in for the night. Of course, she could just ask for her birth certificate, but she doesn’t want another argument. And she has an idea where it might be—in the little suitcase under her mother’s bed, where she keeps old photographs and papers. Joséphine hasn’t been expressly forbidden to look in it; it’s just one of those implicit rules that you don’t meddle in other people’s personal belongings.
Her luck is in; the cottage is empty. She goes into the kitchen then takes the stairs two at a time, up into the only room upstairs—her mother’s bedroom. A simple dark oak bed with solid curved ends sits in the middle of the room. Joséphine crouches down, reaching under the bed, pulling out the battered suitcase. In her mind she imagined it to be bigger and grander. In fact, it’s just a small case made from thick cardboard and covered in tartan gray paper. She squeezes the old rusty clasp holding it together, but then hesitates, the story of Pandora’s box flashing through her mind. For a moment she sits there, her finger on the clasp. She smells lavender, the sweet familiarity of it bringing back memories, snuggling down with Maman on Sunday mornings while Soizic clattered about below in the kitchen.
Her mind has wandered. Impulsively, she pulls at the clasp and opens the case. A few scattered papers, letters, and black-and-white photos lie inside. Joséphine leafs through them, intent on her birth certificate, but her curiosity gets the better of her and she can’t help pulling out the photos. Her mother as a young girl, standing between her parents, a shy smile playing on her lips. Her mother in a beautiful long dress, holding a man’s hand. Why hasn’t Maman shown her these pictures before? She’s asked for photos of Frédéric, her father, but her mother was always evasive, saying they didn’t take photos back then. So who is this man? Maybe he was a lover, not her father. She turns it over. Three words make her heart jump. Frédéric, February 1939. He must be her father. But why wouldn’t Maman have shown her this picture?
She picks up a book of poetry by Victor Hugo, wondering why her mother would hide a book. She opens it at the first page, and there’s an inscription written in clear cursive handwriting.
My Love, Lise,
My life began with you.
“S”? “S” isn’t “F” for Frédéric. Who could “S” be? And why hadn’t he written his whole name? She finds old letters but resists the temptation to read them. It’s her birth certificate she’s after, and she shouldn’t let herself get distracted.
An official-looking letter catches her eye. It’s so short, she’s read it before she’s even thought about it.
We regret to inform you that Frédéric Dumarché was killed while carrying out his loyal duty in defending his country.
Something at the top of the letter catches her attention. The date: May 1940. Five years before she was born! How could that be? She reads it again. It must be another Frédéric.
The click of the kitchen door opening makes her drop everything back into the case. Quickly, she closes it and shoves it back under the bed. She smooths down her dress and tries to breathe calmly before going back downstairs.
“What were you doing in your mother’s room?” Soizic stands at the bottom of the stairs, her arms folded across her chest.
“Where is she?” Joséphine answers with a question.
“I asked what you were doing.” Soizic’s tone is cold.
“I need my birth certificate.” She has a right to have it, so why does she feel as though she’s asking for something she shouldn’t have?
The blood drains from Soizic’s face. “What do you want with that?”
“I want to get a passport.”
Soizic lets out a long deep breath. “You don’t need a passport yet. Wait till your exams are over.”
“My exams? What have they got to do with it?”
“It’s what you should be focusing on right now.” She turns away, tutting. “I don’t know! Trips abroad and boyfriends. You’re letting yourself get distracted.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Joséphine tries to sound casual. “Hervé says I can ask for a copy at the town hall.”
“No. No.” Soizic looks her in the eye. “No need to do that. I’m sure we can find it. Just give us some time.” She lets out a long sigh. “You young people are so impatient.”
This last remark strikes Joséphine as particularly unjust. She’s been so patient, never pushing her mother or Soizic to talk about the past, the war, not when she saw how much it upset them.
“Do you know who Frédéric Dumarché was?” Joséphine asks.
Soizic closes her eyes for a second, then shakes her head. “You shouldn’t be going through your mother’s things like that! Dragging up the past. It won’t do anyone any good.” She hesitates. “You should know better.”
Joséphine looks down at her feet, ashamed now, feeling horribly guilty for making Soizic remember. Because Joséphine knows what happened to Soizic’s daughter. Everybody knows, but nobody talks about it.
The door opening breaks the tension, and Joséphine’s mother comes in. “It’s cold tonight.” She takes her coat off. “The weather might be changing.” She doesn’t seem to have noticed the atmosphere she’s just walked into and takes a step further into the kitchen, bringing her open palm against Joséphine’s cheek. Joséphine shudders at the icy-cold touch.
Brittany, May 1963
If I didn’t know my daughter better, I’d think she was sulking. But she’s not a sulker. She’s a thinker. And right now she’s thinking about that trip to England. I can almost hear her mind whirring away, making a plan.
“I’m sorry about the school trip, Joséphine.” I try to find a way in as we sit down to eat. “To make up for it, you could go to Paris after your exams. You could stay with your Aunt Isabelle; she’d love to take you out and show you around.”
Joséphine shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Wouldn’t you like to go to Paris?”
“I guess so.”
Soizic dishes out the boiled potatoes in silence.
“You’ll go to England one day.” I try to lighten the atmosphere. “You have your whole life in front of you.”
Soizic lifts the lid of the casserole and I breathe in the rich, meaty smell of her beef bourguignon. She serves it then makes the sign of the cross. “God bless this food we are about to eat.”
Joséphine and I murmur, “Amen.”
Even though it’s mostly carrots and celery, and the cheapest cuts of meat, it’s full of flavor and the beef is so tender it falls from my fork. But Joséphine only picks at it, prodding a potato with her fork, breaking it in two.
“Do you like poetry?” she asks out of the blue, looking at me quizzically.
I’m taken aback by her question. “Not really. Why?”
Soizic pauses, her fork halfway to her mouth as she looks at me.
“I think I might if I read some.” Joséphine drags a piece of bread through the sauce. “Have you got any?”
“Me?” I look at Soizic. We only have twelve books between us, and Joséphine has read them all. And then I remember. The book in the suitcase upstairs. Surely, she hasn’t been going through my things. She wouldn’t do that, would she? “No,” I answer carefully. “I don’t believe I do.”
Joséphine drops the bread into the sauce. “That’s a shame.” She plunges her fork into a morsel of meat, bringing it to her mouth and chewing it slowly as she watches me.
And I know. I know she’s gone through my suitcase upstairs. My suitcase of memories. She’s seen the book of poetry Sébastian gave me, and his messages, but he never signed his name. She wouldn’t know who he was. There’s nothing dangerous in there. Not really.
“Someone once gave me a book of poems.” I attempt a smile. “And I read a few of them.”
“Who was that?” Her question is short and direct.
“Just someone I once knew.”
She sighs, picking up the soggy bread, putting it in her mouth. I’m aware that my answers are inadequate, and I want to tell her more. I want to tell her everything. But not now. Not like this. It isn’t the right time.
“I think you’d have a lovely time in Paris.” Soizic’s voice breaks in, sounding off-key and falsely bright.
“It will give you a chance to get to know your Aunt Isabelle.” I smile, but it feels like my face is cracking.
“And my grandparents. I hardly know them. I’ve never seen my grandfather. Is he even still alive?”
“Yes, he is.” I try to speak steadily. “But he was never the same after the war.” The war. The forbidden subject in this house. I glance at Soizic, concerned for her now we’re treading on fragile ground.
“But don’t you want to see him?” Joséphine pushes it. “He probably won’t be around much longer.”
“He doesn’t want to see me. I told you that.”
“Just because you weren’t married when you had me?” Joséphine rubs her nose. “It wasn’t your fault my father was killed.”
I feel my cheeks burn up. I should never have told her that. It will take a lot of undoing. I try to swallow whole the piece of carrot in my mouth, but it gets caught. I cough, bringing my hand to my throat. I cough again, my eyes watering. Soizic stands and hits me on the back between my shoulder blades. I try to stop coughing and grab my glass of water, taking a large sip.
Joséphine stares at me as though she’s seeing me for the first time. I feel exposed. She knows. She knows it’s all been a pack of lies.
Brittany, May 1963
Sunday night, after her mother has gone back to Saint-Brieuc, Joséphine is drifting off to sleep when it comes to her. A childhood memory of her mother stuffing a folder behind a set of dinner plates they never used, as though it were part of the back of the cupboard. There had been something secretive about the way her mother had put the folder away, as though it wasn’t to be removed again. And even as a child she’d sensed its importance. She’s sure she’ll find her birth certificate in there.
With this thought she falls asleep. But these are not thoughts to fall asleep on, and the next morning she’s woken early by a nervous energy surging through her. Creeping out of bed, she finds the cupboard in the kitchen where the old plates are stored. She looks carefully behind the crockery. A pale green folder lies against the back of the cupboard.
Quickly she pulls it out and opens it up. She peeps inside, pulling out the first sheet of paper. Her name is at the top.
Name: Joséphine Chevalier
Name of mother: Élise Chevalier
Name of father: Sébastian Kleinhaus
The paper drops from Joséphine’s hands. A shudder runs down her backbone, turning her cold. Time moves into a different frame, backward, forwards, but not here, not where she is now. She’s lost all sense of where she is. Clenching her eyes shut, she tries to get a grounding. What does it mean? Name of father: Sébastian Kleinhaus. It’s not possible. Her father was a Frenchman named Frédéric. Did he have another name?
- "A wonderful book—an involving, terrifying, heartbreaking story of the power of love and forgiveness."—Jill Mansell, Sunday Times bestselling author
- "A wonderful, moving, sad, but ultimately uplifting book."—Lesley Pearse, Sunday Times bestselling author
- "Engrossing . . . a tender, yet thrilling story of love and family secrets in a time of war, beautifully told."—Rachel Hore, Author of One Moonlit Night
- "Ruth is an exceptional storyteller. She weaves brave female characters through fascinating storylines. Her level of detail brings the past back to life, shining a light in the darkness. Love, loss, bravery. She’s like my favorite history teacher ever! My new go to author. I recommend her to everyone."—Ericka Waller, Author of Dog Days
- "These characters command sympathy . . . A vivid exposé of war and its dislocations."—Kirkus
- "The four-year occupation of France by the Germans in WW2 must be one of the most intensively fictionalised episodes in history. It takes an inventive author to find a new perspective on this well-surveyed landscape. Ruth Druart is such an author . . . An engrossing and psychologically complex novel which helps to explain why the Occupation still so fascinates us."—Historical Novel Society
- "[Ruth Druart] made me think and cry and rage and smile at mankind's capacity for both beautiful, selfless love and terrible, heartbreaking cruelty."
- On Sale
- Jul 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing