A Bakery in Paris
By Aimie K. Runyan
William Morrow Paperbacks; paperback, 368 pages; $18.99
Aimie K. Runyan is the author of The School for German Brides, and she writes fiction that celebrates history's unsung heroes. She is also active in the writing community as a speaker and educator, as an Adjunct Instructor for the Drexel University MFA in Creative Writing program.
A Bakery in Paris is Runyan's new captivating historical novel set in nineteenth-century and post-World War II Paris that follows two fierce women of the same family, generations apart, who find that their future is in the four walls of a simple bakery in a tiny corner of Montmartre.
In 1870, the Prussians are at the city gates, intent to starve Paris into submission. Lisette Vigneau is headstrong, full of spirit and determination, but often ignored by her parents. She awaits the outcome of the war from her parents' grand home in the Place Royale in the very heart of the city.
An excursion sends Lisette into the path of a revolutionary National Guardsman, Theodore Fournier, and her destiny is forever altered. She gives up her life of luxury and joins in the fight for a Paris of the People. In the hopes of helping the impoverished neighborhood in its hour of need, she opens a small bakery. The city eventually falls into famine, and then rebellion, and that tests her resolve to give up the comforts of her past life.
In 1946, nineteen-year-old Micheline Chartier is coping with the loss of her father and the disappearance of her mother during the war. In their absence, it is up to her to raise her two younger sisters, and with the help of a well-meaning neighbor, she is enrolled in a prestigious baking academy with her entire life mapped out for her.
Micheline feels trapped and desperately unequal to the task of raising two young girls, and she becomes obsessed with finding her mother. Her academy classmate, Laurent Tanet, may be the only one capable of helping Micheline move on from the past and begin creating a future for herself.
A Bakery in Paris is full of rich historical detail, as well as enticing descriptions of French confections, and is told in a captivating style with alternating chapters on Lisette and Micheline to deepen the richness of the narrative.
In this excerpt, Runyan writes of what Micheline's life is like: "FEBRUARY 25, 1946 - I sat straight upright in bed, the nightgown that had once been Maman's now doused in sweat. It was a solid minute before I realized the air-raid sirens had been in my dreams and that I didn't have to drag Noemie and Sylvie down to the cellars of our little two-story building to wait out the bombing. The war had been over for months, but the nightmares made it feel as though it never ceased.
I looked over at little Noemie who had crawled into my bed at some point in the night. Her red ringlets framed a face that was better suited for a gallery in the Louvre than our apartment above a bistro with peeling dark-green paint in the far reaches of Paris. She took deep even breaths and looked as though the war was the furthest thing from her mind. A long-forgotten ghost of a memory that would only come back as a twinge of sadness, rather than a tidal wave of grief. I couldn't take solace in much, but Noemie's innocence was my safe haven. I would have given my very life to protect it.
'Nightmares again?' Sylvie asked from her bed on the opposite side of the room.
'Yes, go back to sleep, darling,' I bade gently. I'd hoped that it was just before dawn, but my bedside clock told me it was still the middle of the night.
'We'd all sleep better if you'd move into Maman's room, you know,' Sylvie said, covering her head with her pillow. 'I've half a mind to take it for myself if you won't.' Her voice was muffled by the pillow, but even the thick puff of goose down didn't dampen her vitriol. She was twelve, soon would be thirteen, and grew more challenging with each passing day. I sighed and tried to take some solace in that too. I was just her age when the war broke out and hadn't had the luxury of being a difficult teenager. Noemie, at the tender age of eight, was more restful company.
Part of me should have been grateful Sylvie had the chance at a proper adolescence, but the raising of her was left to me, and she seemed determined to make up for my lost opportunity, even if it meant driving me insane in the process.
'You will not,' I said, summoning the authority of a sister seven years her elder. 'It is Maman's room and will remain so until she comes home.'
Sylvie shot me daggers. Twelve-year-olds really were a pestilence. She'd done the hard work of coming to grips with Maman's disappearance, where I was not yet able. It had been different with Papa. His death records were conclusive. Killed in action near Sedan. We'd all accepted the news of his death with grief, but without the burden of uncertainty. It was a rare family in Paris that hadn't lost a father, brother, husband, or son to the war. Others had waited for years for their loved ones to be released from prisoner-of-war camps in hopes something would be left of the man they'd sent off to war. If a family had only been called to sacrifice one, they were counted among the lucky.
Maman's story was harder to accept. We hadn't the means to leave Paris early in the war, and soon it was too late to escape, even if we'd had the money. She'd been scrupulous about keeping us safe. Religiously checking the oilcloth that covered the windows for any gaps that might let out a glimmer of light. Never letting us leave the apartment alone under any circumstances. Always choosing the routs to the market with the least chance of meeting a German patrol. She was vigilance personified.
But one day, almost two years ago, when she went to trade her ration coupons for groceries, she never returned.
There had been no air raid while she was gone. There had been no exceptional upheaval in the streets that day. But she disappeared all the same, and we were left behind to make sense.
The woman who always left us, cloistered for our safety, with the words, 'Stay here safe and sound for me, my darlings, so I may run my errands with an easy heart and come home all the sooner,' left just after the midday meal on a reasonably calm Tuesday in June and never came home. The city had just been liberated from German control and we'd begun to breathe a bit more freely. We didn't realize what a mistake that was."