I read the audio version of The Lost Girls of Paris, having first been intrigued by the book when it came out. Perhaps I was a little reluctant to read about female agents dropped into France during the war, as I knew many fell straight into enemy hands only to be tortured and killed. The title of the book offers no consolation but trialling the first few minutes of the audiobook, I found I was immediately hooked.
It’s New York in 1946, and Grace Healey is on her way to work after a tumble in the sack with an old friend of her late husband. She’d bumped into Mark on the street, had too much to drink, etc. etc. and now she feels a little ashamed of herself. She feels scruffy in yesterday’s clothes and is running late. Near Grand Central Station, she comes across the aftermath of an accident – a woman hit by a car and killed, a sobering moment for sure. Determined to clean herself up in the station bathroom, Grace discovers an abandoned suitcase and takes a peek inside to look for the owner’s identity. There are no obvious clues, but tucked within is a packet of photographs showing women in uniform.
The sight of the photos does something to Grace and before she knows it, she’s stuffed them into her handbag before hurrying off to work. Planning to return them later, events conspire against her. Grace learns the photos belonged to the dead woman, Eleanor Trigg, a former British secret service officer in charge of women agents sent to France. She becomes determined to find out what Trigg was doing in New York and the significance of the photos. Slowly, the story of the women agents who lost their lives in the build-up towards D-Day unfolds.
The novel is told partly from Grace’s point of view, with her developing and bumpy relationship with Mark as a back story. We also have the narrative voice of Eleanor Trigg herself, a former Polish refugee, with indispensable skills at the conference table at SOE headquarters. When male agents keep getting captured in France, Eleanor points out that they are too easily spotted in a country where nearly all the younger men have been sent to camps as either POWs or for work. She suggests sending women. The idea seems shocking at first, but before long, Eleanor finds herself in charge of their recruitment and supervision.
The third narrator is Marie, noticed on a train reading Baudelaire in the original French and offered an interview. Marie is just scraping by, trying to maintain payments on her London home, her husband having decamped for South America and leaving her with a young daughter, now in the care of an aunt. It’s hard to imagine why Marie would be a good agent, apart from the faultless French, as she’s always asking questions and struggles with the training. Only her rapport with Josie, a former street kid with plenty of nous and well-honed survival skills, keeps Marie going. We follow Marie through her first missions in France as a radio operator, her friendships with fellow agents, particularly the gruff young man in charge of operations.
The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, with the Allied invasion looming, the liberation of France can’t be far away. But this only adds to the risks Marie and co must take, sabotaging the enemy’s potential to fight back and that will mean reprisals. Meanwhile, Grace struggles to learn more about Eleanor and the women agents who failed to return after the war. No one knows what happened to them, they just disappeared.
I enjoyed the characters of Marie, Eleanor and especially Grace, who is still coming to terms with being a war widow, but is determined to forge an independent life for herself in New York, rather than relying on her comfortably off parents. There are some interesting minor characters – I particularly enjoyed Grace’s boss, an overworked solicitor advocating for recently arrived immigrants. The writing however was a little overwrought at times when I felt the events of the story often spoke for themselves. This was a little disappointing as this is such a story worth telling. Still, the narration of the audiobook made it all whizz by and the ending was reasonably satisfying. A three out of five read from me.