Review: The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Another BOTM read-down for me; and for whatever reason, my last few BOTM reads have not lived up to the very high expectations set by their picks in 2019 (or maybe I'm picking them wrong). This story is about Lee Miller, a Vogue model who moves from New York City to Paris to try and set up as a photographer herself.
There were a few good parts about this book that came close to salvaging it, but not quite - the story is interesting, and I liked the narrative of an artist I knew very little about striking out her own and making a name for herself, and also discovering a lot of new things about the history of photography and the techniques behind the early French films and cinema I didn't even know existed. I also really liked the way Whitney Scharer wove in different famous characters from the era without ever making them central to the story; it kept the main character of Lee Miller as the main piece of the narrative while also adequately exploring how she feels like an accessory in her own story and the stories of everyone around her. And the way the story ends, with Lee leaving Man and taking off as a wartime reporter, feels both ambiguous and empowering, like the character was remaining true to her vulnerabilities and her complexities but still taking a big step forward by the end of the story the author was trying to tell.
Now, for the negatives - I really don't like present tense writing. I think it lends itself too easily to simplistic narrative and clunky dialogue, and that definitely comes through. The most important part of the story is the dysfunctional love story between Lee Miller and famous photographer Man Ray, and a significant part of that relationship is the supposedly deep conversations they have about art and philosophy - but the dialogue between Man and Lee never comes across as anything other than trite or performative. He's supposed to be controlling and possessive, but again; all of the dialogue comes across as so stereotypical, as if Scharer has lifted it right out of a box labeled 'Things A Controlling and Possessive Lover Would Say: An Archetype'.
I also think the story could have been plotted better. As it is, I think Scharer tried to split the difference between the story of Lee Miller as a wartime reporter and the Lee Miller who grew from someone who felt unsure of her presence and talent into someone who confronts her lover when he takes credit for her work and ideas. But the way the story flips back and forth, with only the briefest mentions of her work as a reporter and the impact World War II had on her, meant that I couldn't properly getting into either story. It was also just a bit long - a proper focus on one aspect of the story rather than trying to tear the attention back and forth would have made the romance and its disintegration far more compelling.
Overall, though, this is a perfectly fine novel - the points I didn't enjoy are more snobbish criticisms rather than something that actively took away from the book itself. It was a fast, easy read with some lovely moments sprinkled in there, and Lee Miller is a fascinating, multi-layered character that was great to discover. I can recommend it to anyone who is looking for something quick and easy to read while self-isolating!