Leonora In The Morning Light is the debut novel of poet Michaela Carter. It is a fictionalized account of the real-life love affair between British debutant turned artist, Leonora Carrington, and German surrealist painter Max Ernst. Max was 27 years older than the 20-year-old Leonora and married to his second wife when they began seeing each other. The story is told in alternate narratives focusing mainly on Leonora beginning when they met in June 1937 and on Max beginning in June 1940 when Max is on a train trying to head west out of France. Ernst, a Jew who had lived in France for 20 years, had just left Camp des Milles in Southern France where he was interned after he had been declared an “undesirable foreigner”. He is desperate to get back to his beloved Leonora. By the middle of the novel, the two timelines converge as both Leonora and Max try to escape Europe during the war.
This novel will a perfect read for art-history lovers, especially those intrigued by surrealism. The author takes the reader into the minds and creative process of these two artists. The account of Leonora’s temporary mental breakdown during the war is heartbreaking. Max and Leonora’s circle of friends includes many other famous artists such as Man Ray, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller, Paul Eluard, and eventually the American heiress, Peggy Guggenheim who helps financially support many of them. Prior to World War II, this group lived a rather hedonistic lifestyle full of adultery, nudity, and drunkenness. They believed that surrealism “was all about breaking rules, living as no one dared to live.” Apparently, their lifestyles did not hinder their health since Max lived 84 years and Leonora 94 years.
The book is titled after a portrait Max Ernst did of Leonora. At first, it frightened her, since it showed her alone in a jungle with a tiny skeleton in the brambles, a brown unicorn, and an open-mouthed Minotaur. Max explains to Leonora that he sees her as strong and calm, like the dawn.
The author’s note makes it clear that this is not a story of the Great Man’s Woman. This is the story of the Great Woman. She sees Leonora as a heroine, but unfortunately, I did not see her that way. I personally did not respect the audacious lifestyles of the surrealists. The sections of the novel describing the great lengths their friends went through to help the two escape Nazi-occupied Europe were the most interesting part of the story. 3-stars for me, but I would not want to discourage anyone else from reading it. Just because it isn’t my cup of tea, doesn’t mean it won’t be yours.
Many thanks to Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster for my Advanced Reader Copy. The novel is expected to be published on April 6, 2021.