The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Is The Age of Light worth a million bucks? If you follow the book business, it’s a question you’ll be asking yourself the minute you pick up author Whitney Scharer’s debut novel, which Little, Brown and Co. bought for more than $1 million after a bidding war with other publishers.
I mention this from the get-go because the debut literary fiction author with the $1 million-plus deal has become such a Thing (big promotions, big buzz come with big book deals) that, as a reviewer, you know your review copy is one of these novels before you begin reading. Does it color the critique? How could it not? The ideal we strive for is objective reading; the reality is that I’ll start the new Colson Whitehead book with different expectations than the latest James Patterson. Let’s pause to acknowledge the humanness of both reviewers and authors, then move forward, because The Age of Light is a dazzler of a debut that deserves the buzz.
The Age of Light is a historical novel that follows photographer Lee Miller through her Paris years, starting in the late 1920s, with flashes forward to her years as a war correspondent during World War II in the ’40s. Despite an interest in photography’s golden age, I’d never heard of Miller. To this day, her work is widely overshadowed by her mentor and lover, Man Ray. Perhaps Scharer’s novel will change that.
Scharer follows history’s lead in cutting Lee as a complex figure. At the book’s open, she’s hosting a dinner party for her editor at Vogue. It’s a meeting she’s dreading, because she knows she’s lacking stories, so she’s hiding in the kitchen, nursing a bottle of booze and trying not to succumb to panic attacks. Lee is opaque at first, both here and in the opening chapters in Paris. Why did she really leave her successful modeling career in New York? Her excuse—that she’d rather be the one taking the pictures—is lacking, too simplistic, but there’s a nagging sense that all is not well in her past. Don’t worry. Scharer is getting there. Despite the steamy sex scenes and the speed of events unfolding in The Age of Light, the unravelling of Lee’s character itself is a slow burn. But this is the fire that kept me reading late at night, when I should’ve turned off the light.
When Lee meets Man Ray (in an opium den! So 1920s Paris), he gives her his card. She shows up at his gallery and insists on becoming his apprentice, even though he tells her he’s given up mentoring photographers. She works as his assistant, using her modeling experience to make herself useful in the studio when people come in for shoots. But Lee’s true desire is to be behind the camera herself, and when she develops a roll of film wrong but pulls interesting images out of it, Lee and Man develop a technique for it, called solarization, together, she begins to come into her own as an artist, not just the artist’s assistant and lover.
As Lee the character grows in her art, she encounters the same problems that surely plagued the real Lee Miller and other female artists: Fellow artists and benefactors view her as Man Ray’s girl, if they regard her at all, and she’s denied entry to the spaces where her work could gain recognition, including the journal Man himself started. As the apprentice begins to outgrow her apprenticeship, Lee begins to strain at these constraints, and it becomes clear that untangling the romantic relationship from the work relationship will be a messy business.
As the relationship grows more complex, aided by some rather shocking events initiated by Lee herself, this portrait of a woman experimenting, sometimes wildly and disastrously, as she comes of age seems due for a reckoning. (That’s not a spoiler. We know from the start that Lee doesn’t end up with Man.) But for all the complexities of the affair, Scharer gives them a gift of a plot point: one singular infraction that makes their split black and white. There’s plenty of drama leading to it, yes, but the ending is an awfully neat and tidy way to force the issue.
But that’s a small gripe for an entertaining, absorbing look into the mind of an artist who is a fascinating figure history has overlooked. Hopefully The Age of Light will bring about a resurgence of interest in Lee Miller’s work. And it should create an interest in seeing more of Whitney Scharer’s insightful, engaging work, no matter the price tag on the advance for her next novel.