Age of Light (Scharer)

The Age of Light 
Whitney Scharer, 2019
Little, Brown and Co.
384 pp.

She went to Paris to start over, to make art instead of being made into it.

A captivating debut novel by Whitney Scharer, The Age of Light tells the story of Vogue model turned renowned photographer Lee Miller, and her search to forge a new identity as an artist after a life spent as a muse.

"I'd rather take a photograph than be one," she declares after she arrives in Paris in 1929, where she soon catches the eye of the famous Surrealist Man Ray.

Though he wants to use her only as a model, Lee convinces him to take her on as his assistant and teach her everything he knows. But Man Ray turns out to be an egotistical, charismatic force, and as they work together in the darkroom, their personal and professional lives become intimately entwined, changing the course of Lee's life forever.

Lee's journey takes us from the cabarets of bohemian Paris to the battlefields of war-torn Europe during WWII, from discovering radical new photography techniques to documenting the liberation of the concentration camps as one of the first female war correspondents.

Through it all, Lee must grapple with the question of whether it's possible to reconcile romantic desire with artistic ambition-and what she will have to sacrifice to do so. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Whitney Scharer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, and her short fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals.

Scharer received an Emerging Artist Award in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, a Somerville Arts Council Artists grant, and been awarded a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The Age of Light is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
(Starred review) [S]tellar debut chronicles the tumultuous working and romantic relationships of photographer Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller in early 1930s Paris. This brilliant portrayal… [and] page-turning story… thrillingly depicts the artistic process.
Publishers Weekly

Scharer's debut is both engrossing and cinematic, a must for readers who enjoy a fictional peek into the lives of real-life artists.
Library Journal

(Starred review) Scharer's intoxicating first novel… bring[s] a stunning chiaroscuro effect to the saga of a woman transforming herself into an artist.

(Starred review) A portrait of Lee Miller, the American cover girl and war photographer whose wild spirit captivated Picasso, Cocteau, and other eminences in 1930s Paris.… [W]hat a story!… [I]rresistible reading. Sexy and moving.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. In many ways, Lee Miller is a strikingly modern heroine and she makes choices, particularly regarding her sexual and romantic relationships, that deviate from the social norms of the time. Were you surprised by her actions, and did Lee’s behavior change your understanding of women from this period in history

2. The settings in this story contrast romantic, bohemian Paris in the 1930s with scenes of war-torn Europe in WWII. In what ways did the contrast between these two places—as well as the different settings of the prologue and epilogue—affect your experience of the novel?

3. The expatriate, inter-War community in Paris is well known for producing numerous creative innovators—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter to name a few recognizable personalities outside this novel. Why do you think Paris at this time was so inspiring to so many individuals?

4. The Age of Light opens with Lee Miller as a middle-aged woman in England. We know she’s married to Roland Penrose and is no longer working as a photographer. How did this foreshadowing impact your experience of the novel? How did this impact your feelings about Lee and Man’s relationship and Lee’s artistic journey as they developed over the course of the book?

5. Feelings of jealousy and paranoia play a huge role in this novel—especially with regard to romantic relationships. Given Surrealist artists’ rejection of hetero-normative culture, do you feel this envy was rightly earned? In Lee Miller and Man Ray’s relationship, did one person seem to have more traditional views of monogamy than the other?

6. The novel hints at Lee’s tumultuous past with her father, and his visit to Paris is exceptionally tense. How do you feel Lee’s childhood history of modelling for her father influenced the way she made her art, and her relationships with men?

7. The 1930s were a period of intense political, economic, and social change for Europe and the United States. The artists depicted in this novel created works inspired by pervasive feelings of anxiety and unease in the world around them. Do you feel these themes are relevant to today’s cultural climate? Which contemporary artists are challenging and interrogating our current events in the same way?

8. Lee Miller experienced trauma at many points in her life: during her childhood, in her relationship with Man Ray, and during WWII. How does the structure of this novel help us understand this trauma? How are we to feel about Lee by the end of the novel? Do you see her as a survivor or as someone ultimately undone by what she has experienced?

9. Ilse Bing and Claude Cahun are two other women artists depicted in this novel. They do not readily accept Lee into their social circle and are vocal about their distrust of her and her relationship with Man Ray. Did you empathize with Ilse and Claude? Do you think these women would have been more effective in overcoming patriarchal attitudes if they had worked together? In current professional environments, what forces or attitudes do you think work in favor of women overcoming patriarchal attitudes? What forces work against?

10. Lee ultimately decides to invite Man Ray to Bal Blanc under the guise of needing his help. What does it say about Lee that she chose to confront him in such a public way? Do you think Man Ray felt sincerely sorry for his actions regarding Lee’s career and their relationship? What would you have done in Lee Miller’s position?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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