When Whitney Scharer describes her goal in writing The Age of Light, I’m all in.
She wants “to present Lee as the complicated woman she was: beautiful and talented, of course, but also flawed and fragile, and it was more important to me to get this right than to stay entirely inside the lines of written history”.
I am inspired by the imperfect. I would rather a believable character than an infallible one: living-breathing, not paper-thin. Imagined dialogue, scenes rich with sensory detail: whatever it takes to make a life come off a page. I would rather be made to feel a little uncomfortable in the process of inhabiting someone else’s perspective than to feel as though I’m shut out of it.
Scharer does capture Lee Miller’s vulnerability and imperfections, but intimacy is something on display, something beyond my reach as a reader. Not for lack of trying on the author’s part.
“It is so intimate – she didn’t realize how intimate it would be,” she writes, about Lee’s work as the photographer Man Ray’s assistant. “She could so easily turn around and face him, and part of her is curious about what would happen if she did, what it would feel like to really touch him. But the dark is playing tricks on her. What she wants is her pictures, to get them right.”
The intimacy doesn’t stop here. Lee Miller’s sexuality is a driving force in the narrative and these scenes are protracted and detailed. (In contrast, the passages devoted to Miller’s remarkable wartime photography are short and presented out-of-time. Perhaps this is deliberate, because the photographer is separated from the work, literally, by the lens and the device. Perhaps it has to do with the idea that the war gives her gifts, as described in a quote below.)
“The feeling of his body is pure animal comfort. Lee feels herself relax a bit, feels her heartbeat slow.”
How different might this scene be experienced if it were “Lee relaxes. Her heartbeat slows.” The distance is built into the narrative’s point-of-view, so that readers are always reminded that Lee is feeling something before that feeling is laid out for us. (So, the best I can hope for is to understand what she is feeling, not feel it.)
The physicality of her character makes sense, given that she began her career as a model (and, then, as a muse), but for my reading taste I would have preferred either to be situated closer to Lee’s perspective (from a technical perspective) or to have had more distance built in, so that the atmosphere and artistry could flourish. The Dada and Surrealist movements are startling and rich. The trailer, for instance, is evocative.
Trailer for The Age of Light (49 seconds)
Readers who object to authors taking creative license with scenes populated by historical figures will not be comfortable with this kind of story-telling. And this is not the Hilary Mantel style of recreation, where the bulk of the detail described is historical reimagining, with an occasional foray into emotional territory. It ventures into more intimate detail than Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife too. (And, yet, I felt much closer to those authors’ versions of Thomas Cromwell and Laura Bush.)
“…but then a week later she is walking through Hampstead Heath and sees another downed balloon, pinned to the ground but still half filled with air, like a giant egg, two geese standing proudly before it. The photo she takes of it is a marvel, the war’s first gift to her, and Lee feels buoyed aloft herself, filled with the promise of all that the coming days might offer her.”
With intimacy and marvels, I want to inhabit them rather than observe them, and Whitney Scharer is a debut novelist. Her prose is loose, although readers who are wholly absorbed by the story will likely overlook her propensity for serial phrases and clauses (which sometimes leads to agreement issues).
There are some delightful details included, however, like the Italian edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on Man’s shelf, which she has heard whispered about but is shocked to see that he owns and a five-button placket front on a set of trousers.
These are subtly tucked into the prose, rather than layered on top, as evidence of hours of research (and a list of resources in the accompanying author’s note).
Whitney Scharer does achieve her goal, I believe. She presents Lee Miller’s beauty and talent, flaws and fragility.
When I pick up a history book, I expect to be presented with prominent figures; when I pick up an historical novel, I yearn to crawl inside the skins of those people.
Candid Camera with Lee Miller 1946 (2 minutes, 23 seconds)