Never Turn Back is such a departure from author Lorna Lee’s usual zany sense of humor that several pages into the novel, I had to double-check to make certain I had the right book. This historical is based on her grandmother’s (Meri’s) life, and deals with sexual discrimination and abuse, the Nazi occupation of Paris, anti-Semitism, and the hardships of life as an immigrant. In some respects, Lorna’s drastic change of genre was a risk, but I think it was a risk worth taking. Her fans will be impressed.
In 1923, Meri, leaves her young brother, Grandmother, and seafaring father in Finland to pursue her dream of working as a seamstress in the fashion houses of Paris. Lorna does a wonderful job of portraying Meri’s reaction to the city when she arrives in Paris. The noise from all these people talking at the same time, the trains blowing off steam and blowing their horns, and crackly announcements I don’t understand coming from boxes on poles! I think my ears will explode!… This is the city. My city. I’m a city girl now. Soon I’ll adjust and won’t even notice all this chaos.
She doesn’t speak the language, knows no one, and soon discovers that no Paris fashion house will hire an immigrant from Finland. Determined not to return home and desperate for money, she takes a job as a maid in a hotel that caters to the rich with the hope that one day she will still realize her dream.
But as time passes and her situation gets no better, she’s still unwilling to let her family know of her failure to find work as a Paris seamstress. In her letters, she always teetered on the ledge of truth, knowing a whisper of a breeze would knock her words over into the abyss of her lies… She writes to her brother Jani… I’m working among the most rich and famous in all of Paris. My French is improving. Soon, no one will know I wasn’t born in this beautiful city. My wages are low because I am new in my position, so no, visiting is not possible now. You must take care of our home and family in Raisio…
Her journey, from her early days in Paris to her life in post-WWII America, is tumultuous. The circumstances of the time she lives in make life hard, but she’s also extremely naïve and makes decisions without understanding the consequences.
Nine years after her arrival in Paris, pro-Nazi, anti-Semitism is flourishing in France and she is pregnant with the child of her Jewish fiancé. To protect her child, she chooses to disappear from her fiancé’s life and keep her daughter Jeannine’s heritage a secret. That also means that she must live apart from Jeannine while she works as a domestic in order to provide the financial support that her daughter needs. Once the war is over, she convinces herself that New York City is the best place for her and her daughter and ties herself to a man she doesn’t love to achieve her plans.
Meri is an imperfect character trying to find her way in a world filled with prejudice and discrimination. At times, I wanted to shake her, sometimes I didn’t even like her, but I was always rooting for her. Never Turn Back is an extraordinary novel and I’m glad that Lorna decided that her grandmother’s story was one that needed to be told.
Drop by tomorrow for my interview with Lorna. See you then!