If the photograph that inspired Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star had been taken today, at least one of the three glamorous women captured in its frame surely would have posted it on Instagram. Strangers at the time, actresses Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl were pushed together by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for just a few forgotten candid shots (#BerlinPressBall1928 #FutureSquad #WomenMakingMovies). Koe charts the lives of these three women as they spin off onto different continents, weave in and out of exotic movie sets, and grapple with forces bigger than themselves, bigger than parties and roles and fame, as World War II breaks out around the globe. Though the resulting portrait of their lives is rich with historical detail, the reader is rarely able to get any closer to the women than the photographer was on that fateful day.
Toward the end of the novel—there are hardly any spoilers in a book that draws three elliptical paths around this original moment of collision—Leni, a German actress and director of propaganda films, gives a press interview on the occasion of her one-hundred-and-first birthday. “As a woman,” she says, punctuating an anecdote, “you are always acting as a woman.” This is what Koe is intent on showing the reader. As the actresses orbit around one another, they must not only act on screen but also in the daily rituals of their lives: dressing for a party, making up their faces, putting on a show for a handsome man—or a threatening one.
Koe also uses her careful lens to capture these women when their masks are dropped. Anna May in the 1920s, still living at home despite acting in four Hollywood films, screaming at her father when he presents her with an envelope filled with photos of eligible Chinese bachelors. Leni, sequestered safely in the mountains in the midst of World War II, checking her own “foul smelling” pee for blood to keep her bladder colic in check. Marlene, a star who has flamed out by the early 90s, heating up a can of beans on a hot plate at age eighty-eight and living out her final days as a shut-in with only a Chinese maid, a voice on the phone, and the indignity of her bedpan to keep her company in Paris.
The set design and the cinematography of this cinematic novel are exquisitely drawn. Koe stuffs her novel to the gills with historical set pieces, some enchanting, some unsettling. There’s Marlene’s swansdown coat, “made from the lithesome feathers of three hundred white swans,” and the pot-au-feu she cooks for her lovers that fills her apartment with “the rust smell of beef broth.” Over in Germany, Leni sets up meetings about funding for her films with historical figures like Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and the all too familiar man known only as H, “the man with the moustache,” the one who at a dinner party “ate only the vegetable side dishes, skipping the main ones, and drank only mineral water, not even apple juice or a digestif.” Just as there is horror in encountering the men who committed such atrocities, there is also joy in coming across the names of old movies like Shanghai Express and The Blue Angel just as they are being made, as well as great artists like Erich Maria Remarque, Walter Benjamin, and Édith Piaf. Like all good cameos, they made me bounce in my seat with recognition.
Koe deftly pans between distinct time periods and perspectives, zooming in on each woman three times throughout the narrative, always in a different order. Even without a linear through line, the novel picks you up and propels you forward as you root for each woman to succeed in chasing her dreams. Anna May longs to break free from being typecast in small roles as maids and villains to become the West’s first Chinese leading lady. Leni is willing to do anything to direct movies as well as, or even better than, a man, even if that means falling on the wrong side of history. And Marlene. Oh, Marlene. She wants to have fun, in the bedroom and on set, and to be remembered for it.
But what lies beneath the arcing paths of these stars, fueling and frustrating them? With her crisp, clean prose Koe has created a beautiful silver screen surface but gives the reader little access to what is going on inside the minds and hearts of her protagonists. “Anna May,” she writes, “was beginning to think married people started up affairs with her precisely because they could see the end in sight.” The line is dropped like just another bit of historical context in this sea of detail, and the reader is only left to imagine what feelings flood her after the thought. Does Anna May wish her suitors would leave their spouses for her? Does she rage at playing minor roles both on screen and in her love life? Or does the fact that her lovers are already taken simply make her rendezvous all the more exciting?
This emotional remove from the characters makes the romantic encounters less sexy, devoid of anticipation or foreplay. Marlene meets a woman called the Pirate, and off they go on a yacht to “scissor in the sun,” as clinical as if they had caught and filleted a fish. And when Marlene stops going out to play the flirt, decaying and adrift in her apartment, there’s little hint to what memories and old loves haunt her or whether she feels satisfied with what she achieved. Leni presents the greatest enigma of the three. An entire section is narrated by the actress and director as she gives an interview in the early 2000s, when the world is all too aware of the dangers of fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust. As she defends the propaganda work she did for the Nazi party, does she feel any regret or remorse, or just vindication at her continued relevance? Even if the true answers to these questions are lost to history, fiction might imagine it, allowing us to see Leni—and all three of these women—with more complexity than their own era allowed them.
It is Koe’s secondary characters, fictional yet representative of people forgotten to the annals of history, who act as foils to these impenetrable women and who truly shine, filing the book’s scenes with their light. There’s Marlene’s Chinese maid Bébé, who immigrated to France under a work exchange agreement that turned out to be a sex trafficking scheme, and Hans Haas, the former German soldier working on Leni’s sets. My personal favorite is Ibrahim, the rebellious son of a Turk and a German who makes his way to Paris.
The concerns of the actresses pale in comparison to the traumas and trials faced by these “ordinary” people who are buffeted about by historical forces bigger than themselves, forces deeply rooted in colonization, fascism, and World War II. Hans must contend with the guilt that comes with following German orders during the war, while Bébé and Ibrahim, immigrants both, are searching for home in often hostile places. None of the three can afford to forget where they came from, and decisions about where to make a home and what career to pursue are not questions of individual choice. Bébé is a maid because it’s the only alternative to being a sex worker, and she’s Marlene’s maid because she’d rather use her weekends to work than have leisure time she can’t imagine what to do with. By weaving these essential supporting roles into the stars’ lives, Koe’s intricately plotted novel asks, Who can afford to ignore the concerns and conflicts of their moment in history? How will we remember the stories of people who do not have the luxury of chasing fame, or even controlling their own destiny? These everyday people show the promises of the silver screen—eternal life and timelessness, slipping seamlessly into and out of any identity or role—to be false ones.
Yet even these more down to earth characters often seem as distant as stars in the sky. If that is what Koe was trying to achieve, then she has succeeded in creating a movie that Marlene, Leni, or Anna May would have been proud to star in. (In fact, one can almost see Anna May Wong typecast once again as the maid in the role of Bébé, though she would perhaps enjoy having a deep backstory and an unexpected romance to dig into for once.) But one of the joys of reading fiction is the way it gives us access to the interior worlds of everyone from the rich and famous to the marginalized and overlooked. We’re living in an era when women are opening up about their lives more than ever before. Just because women of the past didn’t have as many outlets for expression doesn’t mean their inner landscapes were any less rich than ours. In Koe’s novel, the women are still trapped, destined to continue playing the roles their era cast them in and, as Leni put it, “acting as women.” If I wanted to know how the world saw these three stars, I would have picked up a history book. I picked up a novel because I wanted to imagine the pieces of them lost to history, to witness their doubts and desires, confusions and frustrations, to see them set free.