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'The Lost Girls of Paris' Fictionalizes True Tale Of Female Spies During World War II


Grace Healey is trying to cut through Grand Central Station, late again, on her way to work in 1946 when she stumbles over an abandoned suitcase. She looks inside. She cuts her finger and finds a packet with a dozen photos, each of a different woman, and becomes intrigued. What she discovers about those women and the woman whose name, Trigg, is engraved on the case is told in Pam Jenoff's new novel "The Lost Girls Of Paris." And Pam Jenoff, a former U.S. foreign service officer, now teaches law at Rutgers, and who's author of the previous bestseller "The Orphan's Tale," joins us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAM JENOFF: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So why doesn't she just leave the suitcase?

JENOFF: Well, Grace is at an interesting crossroads in her life. She is what I call not quite a war widow. She lost her husband during World War II but not to combat. And she's living in New York, trying to figure out what's next when she finds the suitcase. So I believe she's intrigued both with the photos for themselves but also with this journey that is a bit of an escape from her own problems.

SIMON: The stories of these women were inspired by the stories of real people, weren't they?

JENOFF: They were. I was researching for my next book idea, and I discovered the incredible tale of the British women who had served in Special Operations Executive, deployed behind enemy lines to engage in sabotage and subversion. And so this book is very much inspired by the real-life heroism of those women.

SIMON: They had discovered - maybe we should explain - that for a number of reasons, men were more vulnerable to being discovered.

JENOFF: Yes. It was the darkest days of the war for Britain when they started sending people over - first, men to engage in these activities. And the men were easily discovered because on the streets of France in the early 1940s, there simply weren't many young men. They had all been conscripted or imprisoned. And so British men trying to fit in were tagged quite easily. So someone said, there's lots of women, why don't we send some of those?

SIMON: You introduce us to a character named Eleanor Trigg, directly inspired by a real-life British character named Vera Atkins. Tell us about them both.

JENOFF: So in real life, Vera Atkins - an interesting woman. She was not British. She was of East European descent, from a Jewish family. And she had worked her way up through Special Operations Executive and, among other things, became in charge of the women's unit - the women who were to serve in SOE. So she was in charge of their recruitment and their deployment. And ultimately, when many of these women were captured and killed, she felt a great deal of guilt and went to find out what had happened to them.

SIMON: You worked at the Pentagon and State Department, including a stint in Poland, I gather. Do we see any of that in your novels?

JENOFF: All of my books are very much inspired by those experiences. I was first at the Pentagon. And that is a time that I refer to as seeing the world from the shoulders of giants, to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton. I traveled all over the world with my boss, including to the 50th anniversary commemorations of World War II.

I then moved over to the State Department. And, myself, I was - I'm Jewish, and I was on the ground in Poland, became very close to the survivors. And the U.S. government gave me responsibility for the Holocaust issues. And so I emerged from both of those experiences really changed and moved. And I've been writing what I refer to as love songs to that period ever since.

SIMON: So much of this novel is taken up with the stories of people who are trying to do the right thing when it's the stealthy thing (laughter). Well, how do we get ahold of that in this time and place?

JENOFF: One of the themes that really emerged for me in writing this book is the trust that we place in our governments and whether or not such trust is warranted, which, you know, may or may not be a timely theme, as well.

But in this case, in the book, you know, these women just up and left their lives, and sometimes children, and were dropped into occupied Europe - you know, just dropped by a plane - and had to sort of fend for themselves. And they were very much doing what they believe was the right thing. But they were only one piece of a much larger puzzle. And often, you know, it's a question of whether sort of the ends justify the means, I think.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you hope that people who might read your novel might feel some debt to the real people after whom it's modeled?

JENOFF: Absolutely. One of the most striking things is that - not just the scope of the heroism of these women and their exploits, but, you know, after the war, they really received very little recognition for a long time. And so there's a great joy in bringing these stories to life. And someone remarked that this is almost an appropriate story for this #MeToo moment that we're having because it really is a story about women finding their power and their voice.

SIMON: Pam Jenoff, her new novel, "The Lost Girls Of Paris" - thanks so much for being with us.

JENOFF: Thank you for having me.

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