When 23-year-old book store clerk Lily Heller gets off the airplane in Paris, she expects to arrive in the present day, but to her great surprise and puzzlement, she arrives in a pre-WWII 1937 Paris that’s much different from the city she knew in her study-abroad days. With no money and no clue how or why she got there, Lily attempts to find solace in the book store of her personal hero, expatriate Sylvia Beach. She begins to think she’ll never make it back to her life in 2010, but after befriending compassionate Frenchman Paul, flirty Nazi Heinrich, and mysterious old woman Louise, her fondness for, as well as her utter confusion and anxiety about, her circumstance grows. But Louise soon reveals to her that she has been chosen for a special mission: to steal an historic book from Sylvia Beach’s collection to keep it out of the Nazi’s hands. The fate of the world lays in Lily’s decision.
Time travel and literary illusions are two of my greatest weaknesses in fiction, and Chasing Sylvia Beach definitely satiated my hunger for an absorbing novel involving both. While it is a page-turner, one step up from an escapist vacation read, the complexities of the plot tie together cleverly in the end; it winds its way like a mystery, with a subtle romantic feel. The sepia tones in the cover design set the atmosphere for what’s inside somehow—it’s a novel that’s both historic and contemporary at the same time.
Though the story is told in third person, it’s easy to start feeling as though Lily is telling it in first person. Her character pulses with life, and although she is often mainstream and also intimidated by the prospect of success, her role models are great feminist figures and literary heroes. She forms a sort of friendship with Sylvia Beach, founder of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, which leads her to begin to affirm her worth as both a woman and a writer; her identity at the age of 23 had not quite yet taken shape. In the decisions she must make—from pawning off her grandmother’s ring for money to getting closer to Paul while she is dating another man back in 2010—are rife with tough moral issues from which she must learn to let go. By the end of the story, she is confident in her abilities as a writer, though this may be less because of her encouragement from Sylvia and Paul and more because of her new found role in the gang of time-travelling bibliomaniacs.
Any daydreamer like Lily will surely gobble this story right up. It is not only a work of encouragement for young women but it also explores the supernatural forces at work in the act of reading and writing. The premise is intriguing, and the mystery continues to cling to the reader even after finishing the book: the prospect of the time-travellers carrying on for more adventures tickles the imagination. Cynthia Morris has crafted a spellbinding mystery/fantasy with Chasing Syvlia Beach. I sincerely hope a sequel is in the works.