It's 1942, and Lucien Bernard is in Nazi-occupied Paris. What is a time of terrible hardship and danger for so many has opportunity knocking at the architect's door. The Nazis have commissioned him to design and build factories for their war effort, and Bernard relishes the chance so much that he turns a blind eye to his creations' purpose.
When he's offered a lot of money to design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man, Bernard accepts. He doesn't accept because he's sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in France; he accepts because of the money and because of the challenge of designing something so well that no one else can find it. One hiding place leads to another, and Bernard continues to thrive on the challenge, and the luxuries he can buy with the money. It's not until one of them is fails horribly and the need to hide a Jew becomes critical that Bernard realizes that he can no longer turn a blind eye to what's going on. He's going to have to make a stand.
I loved the depiction of Paris during the occupation, the creation of those beautifully designed hiding places, and the efforts the Nazis made to find them, but this wasn't enough to make The Paris Architect a winner for me. Everything hinges on the architect, Lucien Bernard, and I mean everything. At first he is a self-centered creature who wafts through life trying to gather all the riches to which he feels entitled. In this regard, his wife is a good match for him. Bernard has a mistress (because-- naturally-- men of his station do), and the only time he really pays attention to what's going on around him is when he worries about his own safety or comfort. In short, the man may be talented, but he's a jerk.
However, within the blink of an eye, this self-centered man changes completely. One of the hiding places of which he's so proud fails, and normally a person of his character and attitude would feel badly and either stop accepting further commissions or resolve that future projects will contain no errors. Instead, Bernard does a complete about-face. He's filled with empathy and compassion, and he thinks nothing of risking his own life to save Jews-- when he didn't particularly care for them in the first place. It's too big of a change too quickly, and unfortunately-- although I applauded the fact that the man found the courage to do what was right-- it just wasn't believable.
The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
Sourcebooks Landmark © 2013
Hardcover, 384 pages
Historical Fiction, Standalone