Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester

Title: The Paris Orphan
Classification: Adult Fiction
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format: Paperback; 480 pages
Publisher: Forever (September 3, 2019)
ISBN-10: 153876489X
ISBN-13: 978-1538764893
Author's Website:
Notes: I received a copy of the book for review purposes. This in no way affected my review or rating. Be forewarned, this book tackles some harsh subjects that are associated with WW II. Rape and other horrors of the war are discussed, so if those types of  subjects don't appeal, you may want to skip this one.

War has a way of bringing out the best or worst in people, and never was it more apparent than during World War II. People died in horrific ways at the hands of other people. Friend turned on friend, family members turned upon other family members. Those who were supposed to be heroes didn't always act heroic. Under the cloak of war people do things they normally wouldn't when the brunt of society is watching. Death seemed to lurk at every turn and in every corner. If you managed to escape the grim reaper it was more out of dumb luck than through brawn or skill. Hell, it seemed, had unleashed its fury upon the earth and decided to stay for a while as it basked in the wake of the chaos and destruction it wrought.

It was during this time that women stepped up to the plate, taking on the jobs their male counterparts would have done if they hadn't been sent to the battlefront. Among those women, a small handful were allowed to go to Europe and report on the war, but they weren't given the access their fellow male war correspondents were. Women, it was thought, were too delicate in nature to be able to handle all the gore and horror that came with being at the battlefront. It was a place they didn't belong and so they were delegated to less dangerous places such as field hospitals and towns that the allied soldiers occupied.

In the midst of all the havoc war wreaked a good luck charm emerged in the form of a young orphan girl. The US soldiers believed a kiss or a hug from the young girl before they left on a mission would bring them luck. Strangely enough, those who didn't get a kiss or a hug tended to be the ones who didn't come back while those who did always seemed to. 'Victorine, who was a small sun bringing light and warmth to a place otherwise bereft of those things.' Victorine became the subject of one of the stories that Jessica May, a model who became a photographer and war corespondent, reported about in Vogue magazine. It is the photograph she took of Victorine that sixty years later will be the key to uncovering a secret that would otherwise never have been revealed.

"To find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins." ~ Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
This is a standalone novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. The story is written in third person narrative from four different perspectives and spans four different time periods over sixty years. The main character, Jessica 'Jess' May, is loosely based off of a real life person named Lee Miller. Bits and pieces of events that happen in the book actually happened to Lee. I had no clue there were female reporters or photographers during WW II and this book brings to light those forgotten women and the remarkable work they did. Ms. Lester opens up the novel with a quote by David E. Scherman of Life Magazine whom Lee Miller teamed up with during WW II--"It is almost impossible today, almost fifty years later, to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words to the front, where the action was." While it's now been over 70 years since WW II, this story makes me want to learn more about Lee Miller. She sounds like an amazing woman that people should know about. 

Jess May is a successful model whose career is abruptly cut short due to an unfortunate incident created by her soon to be ex-boyfriend. The situation created immediately makes her persona non grata in the modeling world. Over the years she has dabbled in photography and, at a friend's suggestion, she decides to put those skills to use by becoming a war correspondent. With limited access to the front lines, Jess decides early on to make it her mission to find stories about women who, through the occupation, have done remarkable things. The majority of this book is about Jess' journey during that time period.

Dan Hallworth is a Major in the Army. He and Jess meet when she's unexpectedly driven out into a war zone that was thought to be the location of a field hospital. He is one of those rare men who "couldn't care less if you were a woman or a flamingo". Many men of the time would love to see her fail, but he helps Jess throughout the war when he can, not because he's hoping for something in return but because he's an overall nice guy. He cares about others--especially the men under his command--and does all he can to try to keep them safe and feels it personally when something happens to one. He's one of the men that war brings out the best in. He's also easy on the eyes and the women he encounters tend to swoon over him. In the midst of all the chaos, Jess and Dan form an unlikely friendship.

D'Arcy is hired sixty years after the war ended to handle a collection of World War II photographs taken by a photographer whom nobody knows the identity of.  The photographer, known only as I. Durant, was up for a Pulitzer but is rumored to have not won because some thought he or she might have been a woman. As D'Arcy goes through an old box of photos in the Photographer's attic, she discovers a photo she knows all too well--a picture that was highly publicized taken by Jessica May of a young girl during the war. When she turns the photo over she makes a startling discovery--the name on the back of the photo is that of her mother, Victorine Hallworth, and the man in the photo with her is revealed to be Dan Hallworth. Could there be a connection between her, her mother, Jessica May, and Dan Hallworth? D'Arcy has no idea but, as she learns more and more, she is determined to find out.

Victorine is the common link that will cause a carefully stacked house of cards, i.e. a carefully constructed set of lies, omissions, and secrets, to collapse. This is a story about love, loss, selfishness, secrets, lies, and the choices we make. It shows how one singular event can change the direction of more than one individual. It's also a cautionary tale about how actions have 'consequences that nobody could ever imagine or will ever know.' Plus, there's a nice lesson to the story which, ironically, Victorine taught her daughter: "It's my mother's fault I'm not shy," she said. "She taught me to question everything, to say what I thought because sometimes, if you didn't, people died." (...) "She believed holding back was a dangerous thing that could end in sadness."

I couldn't help but give this one 4 1/2 out of 5 roses. This is a novel about "a beautiful young woman who's at the age when she has the whole world ahead of her, when the decisions she makes will  either be the best or hardest to live with in the years to come." It's a story that brings up subjects that were swept under the rug and never properly dealt with. It contains subject matter that is highly relevant in today's #MeTooMovement era, and illustrates just how far women in our society have truly come. It also delves into the extreme ugliness of war. As Jess states in the novel about the concentration camps, "That's why I think people say it can't be true. Because they can't imagine there are worse things. But every time we think that, we find evidence of something worse than the worst possible thing." I loved how the author used the literary device called a foil. It's when an author includes contrasting characters which highlight the character of another character. In this case she used two, one for Jess and one for Dan.  See if you can spot them. The only thing that kept me from giving this a 5 rose rating is because of something that happens at the end that I wish would have been written slightly different. Once you read the book you'll probably have no problem identifying what it is. This was an emotional roller coaster ride of a read that kept my attention from start to finish. It was well written, engaging, had characters which were easy to relate to, and made me feel like I'd taken a step back in time. While there is a romance in this one, I'm forgoing my romance rating because romance isn't the center of this story. I definitely recommend this one, and think that this story and/or the real life story of Lee Miller would make for a great movie. Hollywood should take note of this one.
Notes to keep you in the know:
If this Lee Miller and other female WW II war correspondents intrigue you as much as they do me, you may want to check out the following books:

You may also want to check out The Lee Miller Archives where you can view some of her photos:

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