Delayed Rays of a Star

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 23 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

A super ambitious book! Taking these famous women and turning them into a novel is no small feat! It is one that was accomplished very well, however. I did feel like the book was a bit dense but maybe it had to be to do it justice? I enjoyed it but it wasn't something I'd pull out just for fun or on the beach.
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Genre:  Historical Fiction
Publisher:  Doubleday Books
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Spanning the 1920s to 2003, this sprawling novel is expertly woven with characters are powerfully alive.  Koe’s novel was inspired by a 1928 photograph taken in Berlin of then up and coming real-life actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party in Berlin.
For those who don't know these film icons, Marlene Dietrich was a gender-bending German actress who was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day.  Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve international acclaim.   Leni Riefenstahl was an actress turned director of Nazi propaganda films as well as nonpolitical films.

There are two moving secondary characters in the novel.  There is a Chinese maid who was a onetime sex-trafficked prostitute.  She now takes care of an old and difficult reclusive woman who happens to be Marlene Dietrich.  And there is a gay German soldier who had worked in films before the war.  He was recruited off the battlefield to be a film crew member with Riefenstahl.  He is mourning the lover he watched die in battle. Through his character, one gets glimpses of the average young German soldier’s thoughts during the war.  Not at all different than from those they were fighting.  “Please God let me live through this war…Why am I crawling in the mud when the bigwigs that started the war are safely sitting at home?”  Both characters are written in a way that will break your heart without being saccharine.

The ambiguous novel takes on many subjects:

There is sexuality.   Marlene Dietrich’s public image included openly defying sexual norms.  She was known for her androgynous dressing fashion sense.  Dietrich was the Hollywood legend who made being queer acceptable, even downright sexy.  Men and women both drooled over her and she famously bedded both.  How she got away with this in that period of time is quite a feat.   Perhaps it was her narcissist personality traits that helped her pull it off.   Still, while America adored her, Germany was angry and disowned her.  Marlene remained Marlene until the end of her life.   The author writes a scene of her maid holding her nose while cleaning an antique Limoges pitcher the 88-year-old uses as a bedpan.  In her famous throaty voice, she hollers at the maid, "Everyone should be glad I can still pee."  For her funeral, she requested that red and white carnations be distributed to those who attended.  A red carnation would be handed to those who slept with Dietrich and a white one to those who didn’t.  She fantasized fistfights over ‘You slept with her and I didn’t!’ These laugh out loud moments are written to perfection.  (This reviewer googled an interview with Marlene’s daughter and learned that this was indeed her mother’s funeral wish.  Her mom would have been very disappointed if she knew it wasn’t carried out).

There is racism.  Despite being born in California, and the daughter of parents who were themselves born here, Wong was only offered bad/evil woman Chinese character roles.  She was never a lead character.  The Chinese were as furious with her as the Germans were of Dietrich.  A moving scene in the book happens when she is in China for a publicity tour.   Wong is criticized by a film critic for taking stereotypical roles.  She tries to explain that as a non-white in America life can be hard.  She fiercely fought for different roles.  She desperately wanted the lead role in the film “The Good Earth.”  The movie takes place in turn-of-the-century China.  She thought she had it.  She was deep into preparation, giving ideas and costume suggestions when she received a phone call informing her that the role went to a white actress.  The reason: She was too Chinese.

There is sexism.  Leni Riefenstahl was an accomplished filmmaker, one of the first of female filmmakers of her generation.  Still, she is easy not to like.  She received financial support from Hitler but, after the fall of the Nazi regime, claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust.  Koe paints her as willfully unknowing.  Leni is written in a way that one can ‘almost’ understand where she is coming from.  Since she was a woman, no one was willing to take her seriously as a director and back her films.  She took money where she could and concentrated on her art.  Like Anna May, she was forced to take whatever she got in order to perform.  In 1993 there was a documentary made about her, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”  Maybe, this is why she is the only one of the three who gets an entire section in her own voice.

Koe’s debut novel shows that she is a master storyteller.  Clearly, her talent comes from being a fellow of the International Writing Program of Iowa and a fiction editor of Esquire Singapore as well as the editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s film journal.  “Delayed” will appeal to a wide variety of readers:  Fans of historical fiction centering on women, film buffs, gossipy stories, and those who enjoy WWII political novels that feel like nonfiction–in other words, for fans of all genres.
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Amanda Lee Koe has taken a photographer of Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party at Weimar, Berlin and turned this into an epic novel about three amazing women,

This isn't a light-hearted summer read - this is a book with substance and depth. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early July.

Oh, I’ve been waiting for this one for sure: second-person narration of Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and (my dear one, my tattoo) Anna May Wong with in-depth writing that gets to the core of each of the women’s inner self to find what they hide and covet from the rest of the world as they age. Marlene as unabashedly confrontational, aging ungracefully, and vilified by Germany with her siding with the Allies and the USO in WWII; Leni as quite stuck-up, directing and acting in mountain movies and Nazi propaganda films to both spread the message of the Reich, but also to stay safely away from the cities below, in the defense of her actions toward the press in her older age, and seeing herself as alternately the victim and the aggressor, demure and bold; and Anna May marveling and envying Marlene’s open, witty personality, but also concerned at her own desire for her, being aware that, in a film made in the US, she can never be in a lead role alongside a white male co-star, and visiting Vegas in 1960s to see Marlene at the Riviera.
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Excellent read and would highly recommend this book! My full review is available on BookBrowse. (Link included for publisher.)
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An unusual and atmospheric triple star historical novel for movie lovers. The book begins with the actual photo of Marlene Dietrich, Anna Mae Wong and Leni Riefenstahl from a party in 1928. Gradually the reader is introduced to each of these stars and follows them back and forth through time. Unless you are a movie historian, there are details here you would not know about -- like the rivalry for film roles that once existed between Marlene and Leni. Each biography is interesting and ultimately unfulfilling even though all three became famous. You may  not like these three, but you won't forget them -- especially Dietrich as an old lady in Paris.
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The scene is Berlin, 1928. Three up-and-coming movie stars attend a glamorous industry soirée: Marlene Dietrich, a silent film actress who will denounce her German citizenship and side with the Allies; Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American actress to appear on the silver screen; and Leni Riefenstahl, a German actress who will become the first woman director, and later, the director of Nazi propaganda films. The photograph taken that night served as the catalyst for this novel. Although Delayed Rays of a Star is a work of fiction, its protagonists are real figures from history. Author Amanda Lee Koe imagines these women's lives beyond what can be proved as biographical facts, but makes for enticing contemplation. This book straddles across 80 years, 4 countries, half a dozen points of view, and the line between fiction and nonfiction. To call this novel “ambitious” is putting it lightly. 

Admittedly, it takes a few chapters for the pacing to gain its bearings. The opening chapter establishes the points of view of Marlene, Anna May, and Leni, but it pivots too quickly to an eighty-something-year-old Marlene and a disproportionate perspective of her maid, Bébé. However, readers need not worry that the additional perspectives—of Bébé, a Jewish writer friend of Anna May’s, an Afrika Korps member turned best boy on Leni’s movie set, and more—might distract from the stories of the larger-than-life personalities. The collected points of view flesh out each setting with grounding details about the sociopolitical climate that might not have been achieved by stepping into the shoes of a movie star alone.

What’s most satisfying about this novel is how Koe fills in the gaps of history where biographies can only speculate. She’s not shy about imagining how Marlene might have seduced Anna May, and how both their personal and professional relationships would evolve as they worked on the set of Shanghai Express together. From the very beginning, Koe contrasts Marlene’s overt bisexuality and Anna May’s coy flirtations with Leni’s conservatism. (Leni makes her contempt for crossdressing men evident in the first scene.) They’re all complicated women with outer charm and inner turmoil, but Koe paints sympathetic portraits of Marlene and Anna May while she carefully avoids an antihero portrayal of Leni. 

While Marlene is able to launch her Hollywood career despite the rumors of her less than discreet affairs with both men and women, Hollywood is not as kind to Anna May because of its prevalent racism. The Motion Picture Production Code and miscegenation laws prevent Anna May from kissing a white costar, which means she’s effectively shut out from leading lady roles. Anna May, a second generation American, is forced into bit parts that birthed the “dragon lady” stereotype in Hollywood. When she realizes that her characters are always crude villains who usually die, she sticks up for herself in public interviews, but villains of color and untimely deaths for characters of color are tropes that media still struggles with in modern day.

More unnerving are the parallels of burgeoning Nazism to American politics today. Is a far-right leader cause for concern? Nothing to be done now, since he was elected by democratic vote. Person of a certain ethnicity being stopped at the border? "We are just following protocol, and you do not possess the required paperwork. We reserve the right to refuse entry." In this book, Leni prolongs the shooting of her movie Tiefland so she can ignore the war and keep her crew safe in the mountains for as long as she can. At the same time, she receives her funding from the Ministry of Propaganda and has a personal connection to Hitler himself. Koe portrays the self-delusion of a woman who thinks she’s kind person just doing what needs to be done to protect her own way of life. But when push comes to shove, she sends the Roma and Sinti extras back to the concentration camp where she had plucked them from. 
The different plotlines feel discordant at first, but Koe blends them together masterfully as the novel progresses. Ultimately, the overarching theme of Delayed Rays of a Star can be boiled down to the line, “Why are we only able to aestheticize or abhor difference?”
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When I first picked up this book I expected a light read; it is not!  I also found this book a bit hard to get into; it felt a touch discombobulated at the beginning and I even though I lost a interest before the end I would still recommend it as the subject matter is well tackled and worth reading.  One of the main characters is a fairly famous German during WWII and she disturbingly depicts the indifference to what was going on in the concentration camps and the evil of the Nazis.  The book also does a nice job of tackling other meaningful topics - there is actually no tough subject left untouched!   This would be a good book club read as there are so many topics that would solicit good conversation.  The author has quite an imagination and successfully intermingles and then ties together the main characters of the book.  As an aside, I give this author the reward for the most imaginative and strange chapter titles!

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me an early release in exchange for an honest and fair review.
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In 1928, a photograph was taken of Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party at Weimar, Berlin.  Amanda Lee Koe uses this photograph as the basis  for her debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star.  In the novel we follow the lives of these three women over the course of the 20th century..  I have read Dietrich’s biography and Riefenstahl’s autobiography and never have I read a novel that uses real people so authentically.  Each character... main to minor glows.  It is a book about sexism, art, racism, and consequences.  “Our smallest actions lead to large outcomes, when we cannot yet know it.” Amanda Lee Koe is a master storyteller.  This is her epic.  “Everything became  a fantastic joke if you could afford to hang around long enough for the punchline.” 

(Listening to the Smith’s strangeways, here we come in honor of my two favorite characters Ibrahim and Bébé..)
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