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The Age of Light

Review

The Age of Light

Decadent and captivating, THE AGE OF LIGHT is a sumptuous trip to a time when imagination flowed throughout Paris and the artists who we revere today drank champagne all night and created all day. Unraveling the artistic, political and social movements of the time, Whitney Scharer tells her story of 1930s Paris and the battlefields of World War II through the eyes of Lee Miller, esteemed photographer and photojournalist --- and lover of painter and photographer Man Ray. Told in nearly photographic prose, this debut novel crystallizes an iconic moment in time, and highlights the birth of Surrealism, photojournalism, and the roles of women in these and many other movements.

THE AGE OF LIGHT opens in 1966, when Lee is a middle-aged woman whose years of edgy photography and traversing war-torn Europe are seemingly behind her. Desperate to wake her from her artistic slumber, her editor at Vogue magazine visits her at her farm in Sussex, and asks her to write a piece about her years with Man Ray. At this point, both Lee’s editor and the reader are expecting a dreamy love story, but bold, tenacious Lee has something else in mind: the truth. So begins a story of toxic love, steamy sex and one of the most creative eras of our time.

When beautiful young model Lee Miller arrives in 1920s Paris, she is determined to make her way behind the camera. For years she has posed for her father, his friends and the fashion photographers of Vogue, but now she is ready to make her own way, on her own terms. Unfortunately, despite her good looks, she finds Paris unwelcoming and cold --- not to mention a bit dismissive of an American model. Her luck changes following a particularly terrible evening when she meets the Surrealist artist Man Ray. Employing her brash stubbornness and wicked determination, she convinces Ray to hire her not as a model, but as an assistant.

"This unflinching portrait of one of the most iconic and yet often underlooked female artists will fill in many of the blanks in your knowledge of art history, while simultaneously reminding you to celebrate women’s contributions to the industry."

Surrounded by the glamour of Paris with their senses heightened by their artistic natures, Lee and Man soon begin to toe the line between colleagues and something more. Before long, Lee is not only Man’s assistant, but also his muse and lover, and Paris --- as well as art, sex and creativity --- come to life for her. But it is not always easy for Lee to play wife, coworker and fantasy, and her relationship is fraught with tension. Intellectual companionship and sexual intimacy can only support these two tortured artists for so long, and their tale is riddled with moments of passion, grief and borderline abuse.

I should say here that THE AGE OF LIGHT is definitely a steamy read. But unlike so many novels where men take the lead, this is all about Lee’s sexuality and how she learns to come to terms with her body. She is a confident woman, yes, but she also has suffered for her beauty, and when she begins to discover herself, the book takes on a wonderfully feminist bent.

Interspersed with these glittering chapters about the Parisian art scene are hard, cutting vignettes of Lee’s future life as a photojournalist during World War II. The Lee we meet here has shed her glamorous skin and become hardened, ugly and alcoholic. Her hatred for the Nazis burns off the page, as does her trauma: photographing dying and deceased soldiers day and night, turning to substance abuse to numb the pain, and employing sex as both a weapon and medicine. Where Scharer’s Paris chapters will make you swoon and soar, these will shock and horrify, resulting in a daring and vivid portrait of a complicated woman whose tenacity knows no bounds.

Through it all, it is Lee’s connection to her camera, and the art and science of photography, that truly grounds her and connects her to readers. Lee is not always “likable” --- her brash combination of determination, sexuality and talent will scare off some --- but when she is holding a camera, THE AGE OF LIGHT turns into a heartfelt love story. Scharer writes about photography with a passion that feels pure and obsessive, and her descriptions of finding the perfect image are absolutely scintillating. Even amateur photographers (like yours truly, who somehow manages to include her finger in every photo) will be dazzled by Lee’s love of photography and the way it allows her to better process the world around her.

That said, the area where Scharer truly shines is her descriptions of trauma and the means we use to recover. Even before arriving in Paris, Lee is no stranger to abuse --- she was raped as a child, her father photographed her in questionable attire, and her mother was distant and jealous --- but when she finds herself in yet another toxic relationship and later on the battlefields, her emotional pain leaps off the page. Scharer does not shy away from the harsh realities of Lee’s PTSD either, showing her disassociate, bed strangers, and even turn to alcohol and pills in order to numb herself or heighten her senses enough to produce the work required of her.

The shock of seeing Lee abuse liquor makes her previous scenes of downing champagne with Man Ray and his posse just a bit darker and all the more ominous. Despite the rawness of these scenes, it is clear that Scharer has a compassion for her version of Lee that makes her feel incredibly real, if not always relatable. You will not always agree with Lee’s choices, but you will certainly respect them, which is the sign of a talented author who knows how to develop her characters with grace and humanity.

Mesmerizing, wickedly sexy and full of girl power, THE AGE OF LIGHT is historical fiction for the modern reader. This unflinching portrait of one of the most iconic and yet often underlooked female artists will fill in many of the blanks in your knowledge of art history, while simultaneously reminding you to celebrate women’s contributions to the industry. Whether you have a Lee Miller print hanging in your home right now or have only ever heard of Man Ray, THE AGE OF LIGHT will immediately pull you in.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 8, 2019

The Age of Light
by Whitney Scharer

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316524085
  • ISBN-13: 9780316524087