The debut novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos reimagines the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of photography, who becomes convinced that the world is going to end when his mind unravels due to mercury poisoning. He is determined to reconnect with the only woman he has ever loved before the End comes.
Louis Daguerre's story is set against the backdrop of a Paris prone to bohemian excess and social unrest. Poets and dandies debate art and style in the cafes while students and rebels fill the garrets with revolutionary talk and gun smoke. It is here, amid this strange and beguiling setting, that Louis Daguerre sets off to capture his doomsday subjects. Louis enlists the help of the womanizing poet Charles Baudelaire, known to the salon set as the "Prince of Clouds" and a jaded but beautiful prostitute named Pigeon.
Together they scour the Paris underworld for images worthy of Daguerre's list. But Louis is also confronted by a chance to reunite with the only woman he's ever loved. Half a lifetime ago, Isobel Le Fournier kissed Louis Daguerre in a wine cave outside of Orleans. The result was a proposal, a rejection, and a misunderstanding that outlasted three kings and an emperor. Now, in the countdown to his apocalypse, Louis wants to understand why he has carried the memory of that kiss for so long.
Smith's clever but uneven debut novel peers into the mind of the eccentric 19th-century French genius who invented the daguerreotype. In 1846, the celebrated photographer Louis Daguerre, his brain addled by the mercury process that made him famous, has a vision of the end of the world, which launches him on a quest to record a series of 10 images before the apocalypse. The aged Daguerre enlists the help of bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire, and together they prowl Paris in search of Daguerre's subjects, including "a beautiful naked woman ," "the perfect Paris boulevard," "the king of France" and Daguerre's childhood friend and long-lost love, Isobel Le Fournier, whose affections he seeks to reclaim. When Daguerre encounters Isobel's daughter, Chloe now working in a Paris brothel under the name Pigeon he sees a way to bring closure to his unfulfilled romance. In flashback, Smith stages a vivid re-enactment of the intellectual progress and persistent experimentation that led to Daguerre's breakthrough discovery, but he trots out clich s in the service of the sentimental love story between Daguerre and Isobel, most notably her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold daughter. Despite predictable plot twists, Smith renders a clear-eyed portrait of Daguerre and his thinking, against a backdrop of tumultuous times.