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The age of light : a novel
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Author Notes
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, a Somerville Arts Council Artists grant, and been awarded a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The Age of Light is her first novel.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Lee Miller (Female), Photographer, Arrives in Paris to escape her past as a model; pursues her passion for being an artist
Love affairs
Paris, France - Europe
Time Period
1929 -- 20th century
Large Cover Image
Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

the trend of publishing novels that dramatize the lives of people who actually lived - bio-fiction - carries on full steam. The subjects are most often women whose stories have been overshadowed by the more famous men they lived with: Frank Lloyd Wright's wife, Hemingway's first wife, Hemingway's third wife, Charles Lindbergh's wife, Freud's mistress and so on. The 20th-century photographer Lee Miller (1907-77) fits neatly into this category, having been Man Ray's mistress for several years. Miller's life offers rich material to the novelist. Behind her icy blond beauty and garçonne figure - she was a sought-after model in New York and Paris, where she spent years hobnobbing with Surrealists and the staff of French Vogue - she was one of the few women journalists accredited to cover World War II. Later in life, she became Lady Penrose when her husband received a peerage. And underneath it all, she had had a traumatic childhood, having been raped at age 7 by a friend of the family and infected with gonorrhea as a result. In her debut novel, "The Age of Light," Whitney Scharer delves with great sensitivity into this past and its effect on Lee, how it made her a lively, spirited young woman who was aware of her power over men yet never able to trust them, someone who strove to become an artist and longed for personal and professional freedom. Yet the pedestrian, realist form the novel takes is baffling: Why write a conventional novel about a pair of visionary experimental artists who transformed photography from something meant to document reality into an expressive form of art? Scharer traces the arc of the love affair between Lee and Man Ray in the late 1920s and early '30s, from their early attraction as they worked side by side in his studio to the slow corrosion of their relationship. Though they are brought together through love of their work and their experiments in the darkroom, Lee's control issues are a mismatch for Man Ray's jealousy and fragile sense of his own masculinity; at one party the Surrealists wonder whether he is homosexual, and he offers up "Exhibit A" - Lee - in his own "defense." Madame Man Ray, as she's known around town, isn't amused. Lee discovered the process she and Man Ray would call solarization, by which a negative is exposed to light in the darkroom; this produces images in which, as Scharer puts it, "there has been some sort of reversal, and all around the image, where the light and dark areas of the composition meet, there is a fine black line, as if someone has traced it with a soft pencil." In Scharer's novel, Lee excitedly shows Man her fortuitous mistake: "When she and Man make eye contact, she can tell he feels it too: a sense that they are doing something momentous. To be able to manipulate the negative itself, its chemical properties, the very nature of it, rather than to alter it manually by scratching or cutting - it feels as if they are creating a new medium altogether." The work Miller and Man Ray made using this technique moved photography from the faithful representation of a person or a thing in a given time and place to an art capable of presenting the world not as it objectively appeared but as the photographer saw it or felt it. Miller's and Man Ray's literary contemporaries were dedicated to a similar pursuit on the page. "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged," Virginia Woolf wrote in 1919, in terms that resonate with the fuzzy, ethereal quality of the solarized photograph, but "a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." But this is precisely what is missing from Scharer's novel: any sense that language can be "solarized" like a photograph, that life's "luminous halo" can register on the page. The novel's tone often devolves to the level of the bodice ripper ("It pleases her, how irresistible she is to him") or the mall ("Lee wants to roll her eyes but restrains herself"; reader, I did not restrain myself). When Scharer intersplices short scenes from Miller's time as a photojournalist during the war, the juxtaposition is promising, but doesn't quite work; the Man Ray material unfolds at so leisurely a pace that it feels jarring when she interrupts it to flash forward. Vignettes that show Lee in 1966 at the novel's opening and 1974 at its close are bizarre and ineffectual, not to mention selective about Miller's actual circumstances: Her son, Antony, is nowhere to be seen; her marriage to Roland Penrose is written off as a "mistake" with no explanation as to why. Nor is any mention made of Lee's short-lived 1934 marriage to the Egyptian investor Aziz Eloui Bey. Writers of historical fiction may of course take artistic license with their material to streamline or enhance what we see of a subject's life. However, presenting Lee late in life, as Scharer does, as a depressed alcoholic dying of lung cancer who no longer much cares if her achievements receive any recognition doesn't chime with the Lee we see in most of the novel. It's a shame because Scharer is herself a talented image-maker. In one of the wartime interludes, Lee poses for a picture in Hitler's bathtub, taking her first bath in three weeks. Scharer describes her getting a glimpse of herself in the mirror, where she sees that "her neck and face are Armyissue brown, the dirt almost topographic where it has dried on various layers of sweat." Scharer also excels at conjuring Lee's ever-evolving understanding of the power of images. Working with Jean Cocteau on his film "The Blood of a Poet," Lee "begins to understand photography as cinematic. When she takes a picture, she is laying claim to one moment out of a moving stream of a thousand potential moments, and the act of choosing it, of removing it from its context, is part of what makes it art." The question of context is a key issue in historical novels. They are often accused of providing escapist fantasies of the past; this is unfortunately the case here as Scharer succumbs to the mythology of Paris in the early 1930s. The global financial crisis barely registers: We are with Lee as she slurps oysters and Champagne in Montparnasse with Man Ray or drinks absinthe with a sexy set designer. Everything is just a little too period-accurate. Of course Josephine Baker is performing the night that Lee goes to Bricktop's; of course she's singing "Blue Skies," the lyrics aligning perfectly with Lee's own hopeful mood. "The song feels exactly right," Scharer notes, and this platitude captures what feels exactly wrong with the book. Josephine Baker, the absinthe, "perfect corkscrews of lemon peel" in a martini glass: These become not touchstones of Lee Miller's lived reality, but metonyms for glamour. At a Surrealist salon, early in the novel, Lee hears Claude Cahun give a reading from her autobiography, "Disavowals": "I want to stitch, sting, kill, with only the most pointed extremity.... To travel only at the prow of myself." "Lee," Scharer writes, "doesn't know - or really care - if she has fully understood what Claude was getting at, but she wants to be how the words made her feel: alone but not lonely, needing no one, living her life with intention." Scharer turns Cahun's manifesto into Lee's personal slogan, which she repeats to herself periodically, robbing it of its aesthetic power, blunting its sting. Yet for Cahun, and for Miller as well, there is no separating the personal from the image from the political context; all are bound up together. At Dachau, Lee thinks of her film canisters as "grenades" she sends back for publication. "The Age of Light" flickers companionably, but never ignites a fire. 'When she and Man make eye contact, she can tell he feels it too.' LAUREN ELKIN'S most recent book is "Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London."

  Publishers Weekly Review

Scharer's stellar debut chronicles the tumultuous working and romantic relationships of photographer Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller in early 1930s Paris. As as an older woman living on a farm in East Sussex, Lee contemplates an assignment to write about her time with Man. Scharer intersperses her memories of that era with the grim but satisfying later years of being a WWII photographer. The years during and after the fall of Hitler led to her most important work, but also to a drinking problem. These scenes are juxtaposed against her hope-and-love-filled initial years in Paris, where she meets the older Man at a party and later convinces him to take her on as an apprentice. Man nurtures her talent as a photographer but also proves himself possessive and controlling, both as a lover and as a mentor. It becomes clear that he and his circle of famous artists ultimately don't take women's work seriously, prompting Lee to betray him. When Man guts her by submitting her photography under his name for a prize, she exacts revenge via another project he wanted to take from her and brings matters to a head. Scharer's brilliant portrayal of the complicated couple features a page-turning story and thrillingly depicts the artistic process. (Feb.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Rapturous and razor sharp all at once, The Age of Light fearlessly unzips anything we might know of Lee Miller as model and muse and recasts her as artist, free thinker and architect of a singular and unapologetic life. This novel sparks on every page." --Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin <br> <br> A captivating debut novel by Whitney Scharer, The Age of Light tells the true story of Vogue model turned renowned photographer Lee Miller, and her search to forge a new identity as an artist after a life spent as a muse. "I'd rather take a photograph than be one," she declares after she arrives in Paris in 1929, where she soon catches the eye of the famous Surrealist Man Ray. Though he wants to use her only as a model, Lee convinces him to take her on as his assistant and teach her everything he knows. As they work together in the darkroom, their personal and professional lives become intimately entwined, changing the course of Lee's life forever.<br> <br> Lee's journey of self-discovery takes took her from the cabarets of bohemian Paris to the battlefields of war-torn Europe during WWII, from inventing radical new photography techniques to documenting the liberation of the concentration camps as one of the first female war correspondents. Through it all, Lee must grapple with the question of whether it's possible to stay true to herself while also fulfilling her artistic ambition--and what she will have to sacrifice to do so.<br> <br> Told in alternating timelines of 1930s Paris and the battlefields of WWII, this sensuous, richly researched and imagined debut novel brings to light the life of a fearless, original artist--a woman whose name and art should be known by everyone.<br> <br>
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