As the title suggests, Rose’s second novel (after The Sorting Room) takes on the theme of photography, especially the lively intelligence that goes into selecting and capturing a fixed moment in time. The story centers on the remarkable Coty Fine, introduced as a young woman and photographer “in the damp hotbox” of Vietnam in 1954 and follows her until after her death decades later. Encouraged by her wealthy grandfather Sheldon Fine, her benefactor “in the pursuit of art,” Coty has cultivated an eye for “the unusual in any setting.” In Southeast Asia, the unusual is the French priest Laurent Sabatier, with whom she enjoys a surprising connection and soon falls in love. Against her parents’ disapproval, bold Coty returns home to San Francisco to deliver and raise twin girls, Odette (Jette) and wild, artistic Noémie.
Rose’s prose is evocative and captures the beauty of rural Vietnam, tropical Africa, and urban and temperate San Francisco with grace and precision. It also portrays all-too-human dilemmas and confusions with clarity as the novel surveys Coty’s passage through bumptious years, as dark rooms give way to computer manipulation of images, and as tragedy comes to her family. Coty is a remarkable character, her personality, hopes, concerns, and art will grip the interest of readers fascinated by the lives of trailblazing women. The supporting cast, too, is varied and engaging, especially Madeleine, Coty’s crossword solving friend, NaaNaa Joshi, the master carpenter and Matheo Aubert, another French-speaking priest and a compelling love interest for Evelyn.
Split into four parts, the novel’s form is as bold as its protagonist, leaping over decades, at times giving just a page or two to devastating developments but investing great imaginative energy into the everyday textures of life, such as how a character holds a newspaper or uses a phone. This richness of detail suggests Coty’s way of seeing the world: one crucial image at a time, each suggesting the complex context of a moment, era, or life.
BookLife, Editor’s Pick