Whitney Scharer’s first novel depicts a new iteration of what is by now an unfortunately familiar story: female artists facing unfair hardships in a male-dominated art world. Imagine how much greater that struggle would be for a woman who, by virtue of her professional and personal entanglements, attempts to make art in the shadow of one of history’s most revered male artists. Such is the situation for Lee Miller in The Age of Light, a fictional telling of the real-life American model-turned-photographer and her fruitful, yet contentious three-year relationship in Paris with Surrealist artist Man Ray.
The majority of the novel takes place in Paris between 1929 and 1932, while periodically flashing forward to the years 1943 to 1945, when Lee worked in Germany as a war photojournalist for Vogue magazine. The novel’s prologue, however, opens the story in 1966. In this time jump, Lee lives in Sussex, England with her artist husband, Roland Penrose. Following an awkward dinner party for her long-time Vogue editor – during which Lee drinks excessively and suffers a panic attack – the editor asks her to write a piece for the magazine about her years with Man Ray. The magazine would accompany the piece with his photos. Reluctantly, Lee agrees, but demands that the photos be hers. “‘This is a story about Man Ray,'” the editor argues. “‘But it’s not,’ Lee thinks. ‘And that’s been the problem all along.'”
What follows after the prologue is an effort to correct that problem -– to center Lee’s version of events, or at least Scharer’s vision of them. And The Age of Light is sumptuous, full of the kinds of details of Parisian culture and life that can captivate readers. The novel works as a study of the young Lee making her way and trying to find herself artistically in the Paris of Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Ilse Bing (all of whom make cameo appearances), and, of course, Man Ray. Lee has strange and thrilling experiences, as she meets a fascinating cast of characters, some welcoming and encouraging, others not.
Lee eventually lands a job as Man Ray’s assistant in his photography studio, where she has the opportunity to work side by side with the master artist and develop the skills of her profession. During this time, Lee accidentally discovers solarization, a lighting trick based on overexposure of photographic film. Working together, she and Man perfect the technique and produce some of their most enduring and iconic images. In the close quarters, the two fall in love. From here, much of the story concerns the way that Lee navigates the growing intensity and closeness of the new relationship. Over time, she attempts to carve out an identity for herself as a separate artist, not simply as his muse or “the one with Man Ray.”
But Man wants more from Lee, much like the other men in her life who, since her early years, have objectified her beauty and sought to control her body in devastating ways. Lee seems sadly resigned to this reality. Scharer’s portrayal of Lee’s childhood trauma is sensitive and moving, and reveals the complicated emotions behind her inability to meaningfully connect to romantic partners. But even as he knows about Lee’s dark past, Man demands her complete commitment. Only through an underlying surrender to him will he allow her to pursue her own work.
In his growing jealousy and possessiveness, Man’s impulse to control her every move worsens: “‘You’re mine in every way. You know that, don’t you? You’re my model. My assistant. My lover.'” In a particularly disturbing scene, as Man photographs Lee’s eye – having reduced her to mere body parts – Lee allows her mind to disconnect from her body as she has done in the past when confronted with the male gaze. Her freedom exists only in her own photography – when she can turn the camera around to look outward at the world around her: “What she longs for more than anything is that moment of decision, of clarity,” Scharer writes. “She wants to create moments and capture them on film. Capture lived experience, the feeling of being alive.” By the end of her affair with Man, following an ultimate artistic betrayal, Lee is still only beginning to understand what she is trying to do.
While some of the emotionally charged dialogue exchanged between Man and Lee feels contrived at times, The Age of Light is still a beautifully written story with its lush descriptions and skilled characterization. Where the novel loses its way – though by no means fatally so – is in the weakly integrated war scenes that appear periodically throughout the novel and feel like an afterthought. Given that the story of Lee Miller as a respected artist in her own right arguably began with her war correspondence – not necessarily during the tumultuous few years she spent with Man Ray – more might have been made of these scenes in this otherwise absorbing novel.
The Age of Light
By Whitney Scharer
Little, Brown and Company
Published Feb. 5, 2019