The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May’s successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.
France, 2005: Australian curator D’Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D’Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer — and realises that she is connected to D’Arcy’s own mother, Victorine.
Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, The French Photographer is a story of courage, family and forgiveness, by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.
I love books that weave together two timelines, particularly if one is set during the dramatic and harrowing events of World War II. And I love books inspired by the true lives of unjustly forgotten women in history. So I was looking forward to Natasha Lester’s new book, which I knew was based loosely on the life story of Lee Miller, a beautiful young American who was a model for Vogue and other magazines before the war, but transformed herself, with enormous determination and talent, into one of the first female war photojournalists.
Natasha has not told Lee Miller’s own story, but rather modelled her fictional character Jessica May upon her. This narrative choice gave Natasha a little more imaginative freedom, while still paying homage to the brave women who travelled to the front and photographed the world at war. Many real women appear in the story including Martha Gellhorn, who was once married to Ernest Hemingway. Natasha also describes many of Lee Miller’s photographs, including the iconic shot of her naked, having a bath in Hitler’s bathtub (though Natasha attributes the photos to her fictional character Jess).
The World War II narrative is the strongest of the two. The modern-day story – set in France in 2005 – features an Australian art curator named D’Arcy Hallworth. She is given a job sorting through an immense cache of photographs kept at a chateau deep in the countryside. She is strongly drawn to Josh, the handsome agent of the mysterious and reclusive photographer who owns the chateau, and their romance develops swiftly and easily. D’Arcy has her own journey of discovery to make, though it cannot, of course, have the emotional depth and drama of the scenes set during the war.
The French Photographer is a complex and nuanced historical romance, with a fascinating and sympathetic central character in Jessica May. Natasha’s writing just gets better and better, with a swift smooth pace and some passages of arresting beauty. I particularly loved the feminist aspect to the novel, which highlights the struggle of women to be taking seriously, and also the long-lasting damage of sexual violence.