The Age of Light

  • Review
By – August 26, 2019

Whit­ney Scharer’s The Age of Light is a work of bio-fic­tion” — a fic­tion­al biog­ra­phy of a real per­son. That per­son is Lee Miller, anoth­er in the long line of women who enabled and then out­shone a famous man but got no cred­it for it. The man in Miller’s life was Man Ray, the Jew­ish pio­neer­ing sur­re­al­ist pho­tog­ra­ph­er and painter who grew up in Brook­lyn. Scharer’s book is framed by an intro­duc­tion and an epi­logue, both show­ing events at the end of Miller’s life. The intro­duc­tion, by itself, is a pow­er­ful, unset­tling por­trait of a pro­found­ly depressed woman, beset by Post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, pan­ic attacks, and alco­holism. It is tru­ly daz­zling writ­ing that will leave read­ers reel­ing as they expe­ri­ence the wak­ing night­mare of a woman who can’t face her guests, her boss, her hus­band, or her past.

After the intro­duc­tion, the book flash­es back to Miller liv­ing in Paris with Man Ray. In between episodes of that life, we read about her years as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing the blitz in Lon­don and then trav­el­ing with troops after D‑Day as they lib­er­at­ed death camps and Euro­pean towns. In these episodes, Schar­er recre­at­ed the cir­cum­stances that led Miller to take each of her icon­ic war photographs.

The Paris sec­tions describe Miller’s moods, emo­tions, ideas, respons­es, meals, and sex­u­al encoun­ters in minute detail. Schar­er also paints an inti­mate pic­ture of inter­war Paris, with its intel­lec­tu­al vibran­cy and excite­ment, and includes all the famous artists that Man Ray and Miller knew. Although most are unfa­mil­iar to Amer­i­cans, they were still crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant modernists.

Miller’s char­ac­ter, as in real life, is exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful. A phys­i­cal­ly beau­ti­ful pro­tag­o­nist is not that com­mon in lit­er­ary fic­tion, and it’s intrigu­ing to see how oth­er char­ac­ters react to her beau­ty. If read­ers pre­fer to read a straight biog­ra­phy of the real Lee Miller, an orig­i­nal artist who led a fas­ci­nat­ing life, the author pro­vides a help­ful list of all the rel­e­vant titles that she used in her research.

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions