Beyond a Thousand Words

As 1954 Vietnam roils from its conflict with the French interlopers, American photographer Coty Fine leaves Hanoi in a rush on the flatbed of a truck. Also on the truck is French priest Laurent Sabatier—a man who will forever change the course of Coty’s life.

Decades later, Coty struggles to repair the frayed bond between Jette, her often-absent, widowed daughter, and Evelyn, her only grandchild. Evelyn, at the behest of her grandmother, travels to Vietnam to locate a nun, Sister Lan, whom Coty has never met yet has been haunted by for many years. Evelyn persuades Sister Lan to return with her to San Francisco to meet Coty even as Coty invites Matheo Aubert, a visiting priest from Gabon, to move into her home as a guest during his reluctant sabbatical. The two foreigners are central, albeit unwitting, players in Coty’s scheme to heal the rift in her family and her own wounds from the past. But if she is going to succeed in her quest, she must secure Jette’s long-withheld permission to share a revelatory photograph—one that promises to change everything with Evelyn.

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Review for Beyond a Thousand Words

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