The Paris Orphan – by Natasha Lester – independent book review – Historical Fiction (France)

Awarded four stars on Goodreads, which is a bit of a gift. 3.5 would be more accurate. NOTE: This book is apparently also published under the title THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER.

The best part of reading this book was learning what it was like for a solo woman photojournalist to cover World War II. Jessica May, a former model, must overcome restrictions, discrimination, harassment, and sexism — yet still manages to provide exceptional photojournalism despite all those odds. But May’s difficulties (experienced by other historical women journalists like Martha Gellhorn, Margaret Bourke-White, and Lee Miller) provide just one of the book’s story lines.

For me, this was a captivating story. May witnessed battles, visited field hospitals, was present during the liberation of a concentration camp, and covered the Nuremberg Trials. But, not surprisingly, women journalists covered other important aspects of the war that male journalists generally ignored. Like the war’s impact on the psyches of both soldiers and women, widespread rape by soldiers representing all armies, and the devastating effects of shortages, destruction, and violence on children. These women told the story of war from a vantage point far beyond dates, battles, and numbers of dead.

The second storyline, set in 2005, focuses on D’Arcy Hallworth, a thirtyish Australian art conservator whose job puts her in contact with the works of Jessica May, a journalism pioneer D’Arcy admires greatly. Natasha Lester alternates between these two stories — until, not surprisingly, we figure out that there’s a hidden and much closer connection between Hallworth and May.

My criticism of this novel centers around the last quarter of it. Plots became unbelievably convoluted and the author appeared to be overly determined to include happy endings for nearly EVERY character. For me, that turned this novel from a worthwhile examination of brave women trying to shed light on a brutal episode in history into something much more fluffy, romantic and way too contrived.

Strange coincidence, though. When I picked this book up to read I did not realize Lester based the story of Jessica May loosely on the experiences of World War II photojournalist Lee Miller. I had not heard of Miller until VERY recently, when I happened to read another novel based on her life, THE AGE OF LIGHT by Whitney Sharer (my review of that book here). Until I figured out the connection in the subject matter, I couldn’t understand why THIS book was SO much like another I’d just finished.

Natasha Lester

More about Natasha Lester.

You may be interested in my reviews of other novels by Lester: