In my years reviewing books on line, on air, and in print, one of the greatest joys has always been discovering a book by an author I was unfamiliar with, or better still, a debut novel that knocked me out. The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer is my fiction find of the Spring, a masterful tale of art, ambition, genius, professional jealousy, love and betrayal set mainly in Paris between the two world wars.
The story is told from the perspective of view of Lee Miller, a beautiful young American fashion model-turned-photographer. She falls in with older surrealist photographer Man Ray, already famous when she meets him in her early 20s. Though he’s American-born, he seems completely at home in the hard-drinking, hard-partying multi-national Parisian milieu of artists pushing boundaries, a milieu which is gossip-ridden and decadent around the edges.
At first she’s just his studio assistant, then she models for him, they move in together and collaborate, and in the end he unexpectedly takes public credit for remarkable, innovative work that’s actually hers. It’s a stunning reversal because we’ve come to see the world as she sees it and we believe in the power of her art independent of her mentor’s. Perhaps the most compelling moments are watching Miller frame her subjects, observing her discover Paris as teeming with subjects to be photographed.
Paris is cinematic and mouth-watering in Scharer’s descriptions like this one in which the city seems “built on the concept of form over function, where rows of jewel-toned petits fours gleam in a patisserie’s window, too flawless to eat.” Scharer is also deft at capturing various kinds of obsession, of moments where art, love, and lust fuse:
Always, always he is photographing her. His camera is a third person in the bedroom, and she flirts for it and for him as he takes her picture. They print the images together, standing hip to hip in the developing room, her body blooming on the paper while they watch. This way they get to have the moments twice, the images calling up the feelings from the day before until sometimes they stop what they are doing and make love again, quickly, her hands gripping the sink, the picture forgotten and gone black in the developing tray.
The elegant prose and striking insights made me read The Age of Light slowly because I kept stopping to reflect on lines and scenes. Beginning writers could learn a lot from the author about creating setting, mood, character–and how to write a sex scene that doesn’t reduce its participants to an assemblage of body parts.
Scharer’s dialogue rings true and so do her period details and details about photography which I never saw in this light even though I once dated a photographer. Entering a darkroom with Lee is as much an adventure as when she steps into a secret room filled with opium smokers. Maybe more so.
The Age of Light is a novel to relish and return to, a book that could easily make you see your own world with new eyes. It’s perfect for armchair travelers and anyone looking for a book that can transport you to another time and place, immerse you in a whole new reality.