The Age of Light…
About the Book:
Model. Muse. Lover. Artist.
One cool day in 1929, Lee Miller arrives in bohemian Paris to pursue her dream of being an artist, having left behind a successful modelling career at Vogue. Gorgeous and talented, she catches the eye of renowned Surrealist artist Man Ray and convinces him to hire her as his assistant. Man is an egotistical, charismatic force, and soon their personal and professional lives become intimately entwined.
As Lee begins to assert herself, and moves from being a muse to an artist, Man’s jealousy spirals out of control, and their mutual betrayals threaten to destroy them both . . .
The Age of Light is a powerfully sensuous tale of ambition, love, and the personal price of making art. In this immersive debut novel, Whitney Scharer has brought a brilliant and pioneering artist out of the shadow of a man’s story and into the light.
Let’s just cut to the chase: how stunning is this cover?! And for a novel that is largely about photographic art, it’s utterly perfect. As to the novel itself, The Age of Light is biographical historical fiction, a sub-genre I tend to gravitate towards.
For the most part, The Age of Light delivers on what it promises. And it’s stunningly written in places, truly lyrical. Take this passage about Lee’s depression, the picture it paints is so vivid it’s tangible:
‘Lee has never been very good at being by herself: left to her own devices, she can easily sink into sadness and inactivity. As the weeks have passed, her loneliness has gained heft and power: it has contours now, almost a physical shape, and she imagines it sitting in the corner of her room, waiting for her, a sucking, spongy thing.’
The arrangement of the novel itself was also well thought out. We meet Lee in the 1960s, overweight, depressed, alcoholic, her career in tatters. We then swing back to the late 1920s where Lee is in Paris, determined to break free from modelling and find herself through exploring different forms of art. We finish up in 1974, nearing the end of Lee’s life. The 1920s part of the novel, which forms the bulk, is bracketed by short, gripping chapters that provide a window into Lee’s experiences covering parts of WWII, including the liberation of Dachau. For someone who was already prone to depression, these experiences left their mark quite vividly on Lee. I believe she suffered PTS on top of unresolved trauma left over from her childhood. It was little wonder she was in the state she was when we met her in the prologue.
Lee’s childhood is divulged throughout the 1920s chapters in fits and bursts. Raped when she was only seven by a family friend, and voyeuristically abused by her father throughout her entire childhood right into her teenage years, it was little wonder Lee was afraid of commitment and drawn to self-sabotage. Her relationship with her father was creepy. She claimed to love him, yet wanted to distance herself while still craving his approval and affection. Her father was a hobby photographer and used to take photos of his daughter nude. He even took photos of her with a friend, both of the girls nude, arranging them in sexualised poses. And this was after Lee had been raped! What a depraved man. No wonder his wife, Lee’s mother, was a drug addict. I don’t know how much of this childhood aspect of the story is truth versus fiction, but it really did go a long way towards explaining who Lee was at the time of her relationship with Man.
Understanding why a person is the way they are doesn’t necessarily translate to liking them. Lee really got on my nerves as the novel progressed and I began to feel bogged down by her self-sabotage for the last one hundred pages or so. Her relationship with Man Ray did so much for her. He taught her a lot about photography and they worked so well together that there was a mutual trading of ideas that benefited them both. From my perspective, Man adored Lee, but as soon as he showed her how much, she set out to distance herself and sabotage their relationship. She really did some crappy things. And while there is a ‘betrayal’ on Man’s part, when taken within the context of the era, and the way their working relationship was set up, I am not convinced he acted with malice. I’m not saying he was in the right, but I don’t think that he considered that what he’d done was anything other than above board. Sadly, I think the love affair between Man and Lee was mostly on his side. I think his jealousy paled in comparison to her self-sabotage, in terms of what caused their relationship to flounder.
As far as novels go, The Age of Light provides a window into the life of Lee Miller at the beginning of her career as a photographer, but there is a lot of attention given to her moods and whims, to her alcohol consumption, her relationship with Man, and the many ways she would put people offside and indulge in toxic behaviour. There’s a lot of gaps in this history, but it does offer a launching pad for further reading on Lee Miller.
Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy of The Age of Light for review.
About the Author:
Whitney Scharer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, and her short fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals. She’s received an Emerging Artist Award in Literature from the St Botolph Club Foundation and a Somerville Arts Council Artists grant, and been awarded a residency at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts. The Age of Light is her first novel.
The Age of Light
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia – Picador
Released on 12th February 2019
3 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer”
You are kinder to this book than I was!
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I’ve read quite a few fictional biographies in the last year and they can be very hit or miss. Becoming Mrs Lewis is the benchmark for me, it’s hands down the best one I’ve read and kind of set me up with expectations that few others have met. Let’s just say, that this one didn’t disappoint quite as much as some have. I do think that writing women back into history poses challenges for an author, especially when that woman’s achievements have been tied to the achievements of a man. But it’s important to move these narratives away from being preoccupied with relationships and begin to address that as secondary. Not all of them are hitting that yet, this one included, as you pointed out.
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