I can’t remember the last time I felt THIS uncomfortable reading a book. Or had SUCH trouble rating it. I finally settled on four stars on Goodreads, not so much because I enjoyed the read. But because the novel generated such strong feelings throughout.
At its heart, THE AGE OF LIGHT is a story of the 4 year romance between two artists –American visual artist Man Ray and Lee Miller, a model turned American photographer and photojournalist. Amid the budding Dada and Surrealist movements in 1920s Paris, Ray and Miller meet just as she is tiring of modeling and interested in pursuing photography. She grabs the opportunity to learn all she can in Ray’s photography studio by signing on as his assistant.
(NOTE: There are multiple chapters sprinkled throughout the novel describing Miller’s experiences as a photojournalist during and after World War II. Though interesting, I felt they interrupted the flow of the book and I’m not sure why they were included. They feel “stuck in.”) Now, back to the artists.
Despite their 17 year age difference, love blossoms and the passionate couple soon embark on their pioneering work in developing the photographic technique called solarization. So far, this all sounds reasonable. But there is something about this relationship that is OFF. Miller, herself haunted by childhood trauma, begins to find Ray overly controlling and demanding. Though, in typical female fashion, she dutifully placates him at first, he soon begins to restrict her activities, stifling her work, and obsessively photographing extreme close-ups of Miller’s individual body parts, whether she wants him to or not.
What became increasingly uncomfortable for me was this power dynamic between the two. The older, famous, privileged white man simply believes he SHOULD be dominant and that all the couple’s joint work belongs to him (since it happened in HIS studio). He is never able to see Miller as anything beyond HIS young and beautiful assistant, who just happens to show such great promise.
But Miller is evolving. She is steadily developing her talent, embarking on her own experimentation, with her own divine sparks of creativity. Inevitably she comes to resent Ray’s limitations and his failure to give her any public credit. So, of course, their relationship is headed for a showdown.
For me, the book simply turned into a pre-feminist era story of how men and women have all too often operated over the centuries. Entitled and arrogant, Ray assumes he is the one who matters most and that it is his role to make decisions, even when they impact both parties. That is until he blunders beyond a boundary Miller cannot tolerate. Like many, or perhaps most women, Miller is taken advantage of and used ONLY until the moment she is forced to set a limit.
It’s an old story. Pygmalion. Svengali. Younger, more talented women working diligently and silently behind the scenes while men in the spotlight take credit for their efforts. Men not willing or able to see beyond a woman’s physical beauty. Beautiful women not taken seriously, despite continual evidence of competence.
I’ve seen it myself and if you’re a woman, you probably have too. So, if you read this one, expect to feel uncomfortable.
More about the author.