Michael Whatling’s new historical novel, The French Baker’s War, is set in a small town in Nazi occupied France. Living a seemingly idyllic life, Andre and Mireille Albert are proprietors of the town’s patisserie, and while supplies are ever more difficult to obtain because of the war and the omnipresence of the Nazis, the Albert’s seem as prosperous and content as the situation allows.
All of this is upended however, by Mireille’s sudden disappearance and the discovery of a starving and haggard Jew hiding behind the patisserie’s counter. Finding Mireille’s torn apron lying in the street leaves Andre convinced something terrible has happened, but his attempt to enlist the help of the gendarmes only brings ridicule and undesired scrutiny from Haupststurmfuhrer Egger, the Nazi overseeing the area.
“…You say your wife is missing under mysterious circumstances, ja? She hasn’t run off with a man, for instance?”
Even the neighbors sow seeds of doubt, also suggesting Mireille has run off.
Gilles is close behind. “Andre!” he calls. Andre stops, but can’t bring himself to turn. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be found.” His voice is tinny as it elbows through the pounding rain. “My advice to you is to get on with your life.”
Days and then weeks pass without a sign of Mireille while Emilie, the Jew, becomes a fixture in Andre’s life and that of his son Fredric. But Andre harbors doubts of her innocence. Surely the timing of her arrival and Mireille’s disappearance is more than coincidence. Surely she knows something.
But Mireille is Andre’s wife. How can he accept her disappearance as anything other than outrage, as a crime? Tempting fate and his own safety, Andre pushes forward asking questions that perhaps should not be answered, knocking on doors that should be left untouched. All the while, Emilie remains an unusual, but not unwelcome presence, learning to look after the patisserie and after Frederic, becoming a welcome companion to Andre. And here the tension builds…maybe Mirielle has run off and Emilie is here, now, and has been so good to Andre and Frederic, maybe she is the way forward. Maybe he should get on with his life.
I don’t want to rob the reader of the climax or conclusion to the story but will say that, like the war itself, it launches forward at breakneck pace without a clear resolution and just when you think you have it figured out, a completely unanticipated variable is found that changes the calculus in an unexpected way.
Whatling has crafted deep, thoughtful characters that are a pleasure to read. I found myself siding with some and against others, rapidly turning pages at key moments as the suspense built. A personal favorite character is Monsieur Durand, the local bookseller, who continually comes to the aid of Andre, Emilie, and Frederic, providing a listening ear, a comforting book, or a much needed cover story when circumstances demand it, even at great personal peril.
“They hold great advice. Having books is an act of faith – beams of light in the darkness.” – Monsieur Durand
From a historical perspective, the book does a fine job evoking the feel of France under the German occupation in WWII, as neighbors turned against neighbors, never knowing who could be trusted and who was still a friend. Whatling’s research and love of the time-period and geography are evident and appreciated.
I encourage lovers of historical fiction to check out The French Baker’s War by Michael Whatling. I think you will find much to enjoy within its pages, as I did. But I will offer one word of warning…much like a French film, this novel set in France does not neatly resolve but instead, leaves the reader gasping for much, much more. Still, that’s evidence of a great story, isn’t it?
Note: I was provided a copy of this book for the purposes of this review. Still, if I didn’t like the book, I never would have reviewed it. Promise.
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