The Age of Light

Written by Whitney Scharer
Review by Clarissa Harwood

I love learning about women whom history has downplayed or ignored, such as Lee Miller, American fashion model-turned-photographer. The novel begins with Lee in her sixties hiding her alcohol consumption in the kitchen while she prepares an impressive dinner and worries about seeing her editor, with whom she’s had a tense relationship. Even though I knew the novel would focus mainly on Lee’s younger years, the dinner-party scene was so well drawn that I was disappointed to leave it, wanting to know more about Lee’s later life.

Most of the novel indeed follows Lee as a young woman in Paris in the late ’20s and early ’30s. She has walked away from a career as a successful fashion model and wants to explore her potential as a photographer. When she meets artist Man Ray, the two begin an intense working partnership that turns into a love affair. Scharer portrays the stomach-churning complexities of obsessive love as vividly and deftly as she does the decadence of 1920s Paris.

The WWII sections when Lee works as a war photographer are fascinating but too brief, and too much time is spent on Lee’s earlier years, when she was least self-aware and least likeable: her constant awareness of her own beauty and sexual power over men became grating to this reader.

Scharer is a skilled writer, and I’d love to see what she would do with a more sympathetic protagonist. I found this novel realistic but bleak: Lee doesn’t know who she is apart from the men in her life, and her hopeful moments of self-discovery are few. Recommended for readers who enjoy literary novels and the art world of 1920s Paris.