Book Review: A Novel Inspired by a Photo of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl


Delayed Rays of a Star
Amanda Lee Koe
Penguin Random House, 2019

I was surprised to learn that Delayed Rays of a Star is Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel. It is the kind of serenely self-assured, wise work you would expect from a long-established author. I understand the temptation to use the vibrant lives of real movie stars as the basis for literature, but so often the results can be an awkward marriage of fact and less-than plausible fiction. Koe not only draws herself into the heart of these three film legends, but she creates a transcendent narrative around them.


Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

Koe’s inspiration was a series of photos Alfred Eisenstaedt took of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in East Berlin in 1928. At the time Dietrich was edging towards fame, Wong had already found footing as a supporting and occasional lead player in silent films, and Riefenstahl had not yet started directing, but had a thriving career as an actress known for her athletic roles. They are a fascinating trio: glamorous, celebratory, and visibly not entirely in sync with each other.

Beginning with the lives of these three women, who each broke ground in their own way, Koe melds fact with speculation and creates a world that includes a few imagined supporting players in their lives. From a hapless worker on Riefenstahl’s film set to a pair of immigrants who meet through their very different relationships with Dietrich, it’s an often fascinating, though occasionally plodding exploration of class and privilege.


Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

While I appreciated the social texture Koe gave her narrative by folding less fortunate souls into the lives of her celebrated trio, I was most touched by the emotionally rich relationship she imagined between Dietrich and Wong. She has crafted a connection that spans decades, where youthful lust matures into weary mutual support. Koe taps into the key elements of these women, from Wong’s somber intelligence to Dietrich’s complex mix of traits from maternal concern to vain self-absorption.

It’s an original, unexpected narrative expansion on a series of images that could inspire endless stories.

1 comments:

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I'll look for it at the library.

A couple of years ago, I read Leni Riefenstahl's memoirs – she had barely heard of Adolph Hitler until he fell helplessly and madly in love with her, to hear her tell it – so it would be interesting to see her through this new author's lens.

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