A moving and entrancing novel set in Paris during World War II about an American woman, a dashing pilot, and a young Jewish girl whose fates unexpectedly entwine—perfect for the fans of Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, this is “an emotional, heart-breaking, inspiring tribute to the strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of love” (Mariah Stewart, New York Times bestselling author).
When Ruby first marries the dashing Frenchman she meets in a coffee shop, she pictures a life strolling arm in arm along French boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But it’s 1938, and war is looming on the horizon.
Unfortunately, her marriage soon grows cold and bitter, her husband Marcel, distant and secretive—all while the Germans flood into Paris, their sinister swastika flags waving in the breeze. When Marcel is killed, Ruby discovers the secret he’d been hiding—he was a member of the French resistance—and now she is determined to take his place.
She becomes involved in hiding Allied soldiers—including a charming RAF pilot—who have landed in enemy territory. But her skills are ultimately put to the test when she begins concealing her twelve-year-old Jewish neighbor, Charlotte, whose family was rounded up by the Gestapo. Ruby and Charlotte become a little family, but as the German net grows tighter around Paris, and the Americans debate entering the combat, the danger increases. No one is safe.
“Set against all the danger and drama of WWII Paris, this heartfelt novel will keep you turning the pages until the very last word” (Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author).
She sleeps beside me, her narrow chest rising and falling, and already I miss her.
The sand in the hourglass is running out, flowing relentlessly toward the end. There’s never enough time, not when a person has become a part of you. We were lucky to survive the war, my wife and I, and not a day passes that I don’t think of those we lost. I know it’s greedy to want just one more week, one more month, one more year with her when we were already given so much time. The last half century has been a gift we never expected, perhaps a gift we never deserved.
Still, I can’t let go. I can’t imagine my world without her, for my life didn’t really begin until the day we met. But I’m as powerless to protect her in this moment as I was all those years ago in Paris, though both then and now I tried to fool myself into believing I had some control.
I rise quietly, careful not to disturb her. When she awakens, the pain will return, so while I yearn for her company, I’m grateful that for now, she’s at peace.
I shuffle into the kitchen, boil water in our electric kettle, steep some Earl Grey tea, and make my way to the front porch. It’s March, so the air is crisp, as crisp as it gets here in Antelope Valley, some sixty miles north of Los Angeles. I stare into the misty morning, and my breath catches in my throat when I see it: the first bloom of the season. In the coming weeks, the fields will turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. My wife will almost certainly be gone by then, but at least she’ll have this, one last dawn to the poppy season.
“Thank you,” I say, looking upward to where I imagine God must be. “Thank you for this.”
I’ve been talking to God a lot lately, which is strange because during the war I might have argued that He didn’t exist. But in the years since, I’ve surprised myself by slowly wending my way back to faith. It began with our daughter, Nadia, for there’s no denying that she was a miracle. And when she had three healthy children of her own, I believed a little more. When our grandchildren gave us great-grandchildren, and my wife and I were still here, I had no choice but to acknowledge a higher power.
Then again, perhaps I’d known on some level that He was there all along, because what other explanation could there have been for my wife and me finding each other in the midst of such chaos all those years ago?
As I gaze out at the rolling fields, I can see our lives unfolding here, our daughter twirling in the sunlight, our grandchildren chasing each other through the blooms. I sip my tea and blink a few times to clear my vision. It’s embarrassing how emotional I’ve grown lately. Men aren’t supposed to cry, especially men of my generation. But when it comes to the love of my life, I’m powerless against the tide.
I finish my tea and head back into the house to check on her. She should still be sleeping, but I find her in bed with her eyes open, her head tilted toward the door. She’s still beautiful, even in old age, even as she succumbs to the cancer we caught too late. “Good morning, my love,” she says.
“Good morning, my darling girl.” I force a smile.
“Have the poppies bloomed yet?”
I nod, and her eyes fill with tears. I know they’re tears of happiness, and I share her joy. “Just one for now,” I reply. “But the others won’t be far behind.”
“What color, my love? What color is the first one?”
“Red. The first poppy of the season is red.”
“Of course.” She lies back and smiles. “Of course it is.”
When she focuses on me again, we gaze at each other for a long time. Looking into her eyes always washes the decades away and takes me back to the day I first saw her.
“I must ask something of you,” she says softly.
“Yes.” I know what it is before she says the words.
“I want to go to the top of the hill just once more. Please.”
“I will take you.” My strength has waned with time; I had a heart attack last year, and I haven’t felt like myself since. But I knew this would be my darling girl’s last wish, and I will make it come true, whatever it takes. “We can go when you’re ready. But let’s wait a few more days until the poppies are fully in bloom.” Of course, the request is partially a selfish one; I want to give her a reason to hang on a little longer, to stay with me.
She smiles. “Yes, you’re right.” She’s already fading, her eyelids heavy, her gaze growing unfocused. “She should be here, though, not me,” she whispers after a moment. “It always should have been her.” I know exactly who she’s talking about: her best friend, the one who was like a sister to her, the one we lost so senselessly all those years ago.
“God had a plan, my darling.” I can’t say what I really want to, which is that I’m grateful it was my wife who survived. That’s a selfish, terrible thing to think, isn’t it? No one should have died at all. But fate doesn’t always play fair.
“I’ll see her again soon.” Her voice is so faint I can hardly hear her as she adds, “On the other side. Don’t you think I will?”
“Don’t go yet,” I say. “Please.” And as she drifts back to sleep, I sink down into the chair beside her and begin to cry. I don’t know how I’ll live without her. The truth is, since the day I met her, it’s all been for her. My whole life. My whole existence. I don’t know how I’ll say good-bye.
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This reading group guide for The Room on Rue Amélie includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Ruby Henderson accepts a proposal of marriage from the dashing Frenchman, Marcel Benoit, she envisions an idyllic life in Paris. But it’s 1939, and World War II is imminent. Marcel proves distant as a husband, and Ruby experiences acute loneliness early on in her marriage.
After Marcel’s death, Ruby is determined to continue his efforts in the French Resistance, and she begins sheltering Allied pilots, using her apartment as a safe house. Among the many men Ruby hides is the injured RAF pilot Thomas Clarke, whom she nurses back to health. As Ruby’s emotional attachment to Thomas grows, she worries about his return to battle. When her Jewish neighbors, the Dachers, are deported, Ruby vows to protect their daughter, Charlotte. Ruby and Charlotte become a family, risking everything for the Allied cause.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Ruby Henderson’s first encounter with Marcel Benoit. Who or what is responsible for the distance that grows between them during their short marriage?
2. “Why do we have to be Jewish anyhow?” (page 14) How does eleven-year-old Charlotte Dacher experience religious discrimination in the days leading up to the Nazi occupation of France? To what extent do her feelings of alienation facilitate her special bond with the American expatriate Ruby Benoit? What shared qualities make Charlotte and Ruby compatible?
3. Compare and contrast Marcel Benoit’s and Charlotte Dacher’s reactions to the news that Ruby is pregnant. What do their reactions reveal about their characters and their feelings about Ruby?
4. “I don’t understand. You’re working for the Allies? Why didn’t you tell me?” (page 60) Discuss Marcel’s secrecy about his underground Resistance efforts. How reasonable is his decision to keep his work concealed from his wife? Does Ruby’s sense of personal betrayal in light of Marcel’s secret seem justified? Why, or why not?
5. How does Ruby’s baby’s stillbirth impact her relationship with the Dacher family and her sense of personal responsibility for Charlotte? How does the child’s death affect Ruby’s relationship with her husband, Marcel?
6. “I must help. I must take over Marcel’s work on the [escape] line.” (page 103) Why does Ruby volunteer to continue her late husband’s work in the immediate aftermath of his death? What does her determination suggest about her love for her adopted country?
7. How does the arrival of the injured RAF pilot Thomas Clarke help Ruby to regain her self-confidence and sense of purpose? What does his willingness to risk discovery in order to help Charlotte’s mother reveal about his nature?
8. “This is France, Madame Benoit. We are French citizens.” (page 204) Discuss the roundups taking place in Paris during the German occupation. Why does Monsieur Dacher persist in believing his French citizenship will protect him and his family from being arrested? To what extent does Ruby’s eventual arrest and imprisonment as an American citizen seem surprising?
9. How does Lucien, the young forger, become an important part of Ruby’s extended Resistance family? What explains the intensity of Lucien’s connection with Charlotte?
10. How does Thomas’s return to Paris two years after Ruby helped him to escape the first time confirm the depth of their feelings for each other? Given her unique predicament—serving as a surrogate parent to Charlotte, sheltering wayward Allied pilots, and eking out survival during wartime without any steady income—why does Ruby surrender to Thomas’s affections? How does her eventual pregnancy transform her?
11. “This war, it has changed everything about the world. But our most important lives are still on the inside, aren’t they? What matters is what’s in your heart.” (page 312) Discuss Charlotte’s distinction between inside lives and outside lives. Why might difficult historical and cultural periods such as wartime serve as catalysts for more dramatic interior lives?
12. How would you describe Ravensbrück, the German work camp where Ruby is imprisoned? Why does her pregnancy make Ruby especially vulnerable in the camp? What does the altruism of fellow detainees and German civilians reveal about the potential for goodness in the midst of tremendous evil?
13. To what extent were the deaths of Ruby and Thomas a narrative surprise to you? Why do you think the author chose to end their lives at the same point in the dramatic arc of the novel? How would you describe your reaction to the author’s description of their afterlife reunion in the poppy fields of California?
14. Discuss the depictions of Paris in wartime in the novel. How do the author’s details of the behavior of German soldiers toward the French, of the detention camps, and of the efforts of the Resistance enable you to visualize the novel’s milieu? Which details did you find most compelling? Why?
15. Why do you think the author chose to frame her novel with beginning and ending chapters involving Charlotte and Lucien? Based on ambiguities in the book’s opening chapter, what assumptions did you make about Ruby and Thomas as you read the novel? How did you feel when you discovered the final chapter was about Charlotte and Lucien?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. For Ruby, the fields of poppies that bloom on her parents’ property in Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, represent her home, the place she longs to return to in order to raise a family one day, the destination she describes to her beloved, Thomas, to fill his thoughts during their separation. Ask members of your group to reflect on their favorite places. What accounts for the significance of these physical locations, and when do they access them now? Whom have they shared time with at these destinations?
2. Throughout The Room on Rue Amélie, Ruby and Charlotte grapple with the question of God’s existence in the midst of suffering and wartime. For each of them, God’s presence is something felt and experienced through the kindness of others and through acts of self-sacrifice. Ask members of your group to consider personal crises they have faced. What sources of strength have they encountered during those periods in their lives? To what extent could they relate to the crippling doubt, anxiety, and questioning of faith that arose for Charlotte and Ruby in occupied Paris during World War II?
3. At the end of her life, Ruby writes three letters—one to her parents, one to Thomas in care of the Royal Air Force, and one to Charlotte. Ask members of your group to consider the people in their lives they would feel compelled to communicate with in their final moments. What might Ruby have included in each of her letters? How would members of your group feel about being the recipients of end-of-life letters? How has the age of social media changed the traditional methods of communicating with those we love most?
4. World War II was won primarily by the Allied armed forces, but personal stories of bravery similar to Ruby’s also represent many small triumphs that helped turn the tide—and helped save innocent lives. Ask members of your group to discuss what might have happened had individuals such as Ruby not stood up for goodness in the face of evil. Might the outcome of the war have been different? How important is it to stand up for what you believe in, even if it means putting yourself in peril? Discuss times in your own lives when you’ve taken risks to stand up for what’s right, and whether there are instances in your own lives now in which standing up for what you believe in might make a difference.
Kristin Harmel is the international bestselling author of The Room on Rue Amélie and The Sweetness of Forgetting, along with several other novels. Her work has been featured in People, Woman’s Day, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among many other media outlets. She lives in Orlando, Florida.
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