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.
Set during the Second World War, The French Photographer was inspired by the life of Lee Miller, an American photographer and photojournalist who worked as a model in the 1920s in much the same way as Jess did. During the Second World War, Miller acted as a war correspondent for Vogue and covered events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Although Miller herself does not appear in the novel, many of the female correspondents who become Jess’s friends are based on real women who were Miller’s friends and contemporaries. In fact, most of the events Jess and her companions witness are taken from Miller’s own accounts or their own memoirs.
In the afterword, Lester explains why she invented the character of Jessica May to portray Miller’s life rather than use Miller herself which mainly stems from her reluctance to write about the sexual abuse Miller suffered as a child. Yet, much of Jess’s story has been lifted directly from Miller’s experiences and these are without doubt the best part of the story as the rest verges on melodrama. This is particularly true of the child Victorine who becomes a talisman for the soldiers who believe a kiss from her will save them from being killed. Everyone loves Victorine and the scenes are often cringeworthy.
The struggles the female correspondents experience during the war are the most interesting part, however they do become repetitive after a while and sometimes it seems the other female correspondents are doing far more interesting things than Jess. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded more focus on Martha Gelhorn, the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.
When the war is over, Jess’s story curiously fades away as she is prevented from marrying the love of her life for the weakest reason I’ve ever read in a novel. As women find themselves forced out of the labour market by the return of the men, Jess finds it harder to find a job as journalist and she isn’t willing to compromise. After this, Jess fades into obscurity or so it seems.
Jess’s story is told alongside that of D’Arcy Hallworth, an Australian curator, who arrives in France in 2005 to gather together a collection of photographs by the mysterious artist simply known as The Photographer for an exhibition in Australia. As D’Arcy goes through the photographs, she is astounded to find images of her mother, Victorine, as a little girl and realises there is a connection. Victorine has always been reluctant to talk about her past but D’Arcy yearns to know the truth and she is finally granted permission to meet The Photographer whose identity she has already guessed.
What follows next is a tangled web of family connections which fall firmly into the soap opera category detracting from everything else the novel was trying to achieve. It’s a shame because Miller’s life continued to be a fascinating one after the war ended and Lester missed a chance.