Leonora in the Morning Light

Image of Leonora in the Morning Light: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 6, 2021
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Leonora in the Morning Light is less a story about love, and more a story about finding your own authentic voice. It is the rare story of a great woman who knows what she must sacrifice to find out who she is.”

If there are souls born destined for rebellion, then Leonora Carrington is one of them. Born into wealth, she lives in a time when a “finished” daughter can purchase a family respectability and title. But Leonora is bent on becoming her own person. Her father is the head of Imperial Chemicals and has many expectations for his daughter. But Leonora has expectations of her own, and when she meets Max Ernst, those expectations collide, and Leonora’s life is forever changed.

Leonora has the soul of an artist and, to humor his eccentric daughter, Leonora’s father enrolls her in a London art school. Domineering and controlling, he keeps a close eye on her while giving her the illusion of freedom. But when she meets Max Ernst at a dinner party, she cuts all ties with her family and follows Max to Paris.

Max, who is married, and over 20 years her senior, introduces her to Paris life and the surrealists that dominate this new art movement. Despite her work being shown in a Parison exhibition with famous artists like Salvadore Dali, Man Ray, and Max, she realizes her own ideas are being overshadowed by Max’s opinions and thoughts. Though the surrealists like to believe they are forward-thinking and progressive, they still view women as highly sexualized objects and muses. And Leonora is not content with being anyone’s muse.

As Leonora becomes immersed in life in Paris, the constant threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany hangs over everyone. Because he is a surrealist, German-born Max has been designated a “degenerate” and enemy of the Third Reich. Ignoring the horror of war and even warnings to flee Europe, they try and live a normal life in France and take a house in the countryside. With the Nazis advancing, life becomes ever more dangerous. Because Max is German, he is arrested and placed into an internment camp with other German citizens. When he finally escapes and returns to their home, he learns that Leonora has gone, presumably to Portugal where they always said they’d meet if things went wrong.

But clearly things have gone very wrong for Leonora. Leonora, descending into madness, has given away their farm and flees France with an old friend. In Spain, she is discovered by associates of her powerful father and placed in an asylum. Upon learning that her father intends to dispose of her in an asylum in South Africa she begins to plot an escape.

A chance meeting with an acquaintance introduced to her by Pablo Picasso becomes Leonora’s salvation. She escapes her father’s captors and runs to the Mexican embassy where Picasso’s friend, Renato Leduc, is the ambassador. She tells him what is about to happen to her, and he offers her escape and immunity in the form of a marriage. Leonora, desperate and grateful, accepts.

Meanwhile with Peggy Guggenheim’s aid Max finally escapes France. He and Leonora reunite, but it is too late as Leonora is now with Renato. As the war continues to rage, nowhere in Europe is safe. When their exit visas finally arrive, they both escape to the United States. Max leaves Europe by air with Peggy Guggenheim and leaves his paintings in Leonora’s care to transport to America by ship.

In New York, far from the war, Max and Leonora’s lives remain intertwined. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor Max finds himself under suspicion once more, and he and Peggy Guggenheim marry. The continued intimacy of Max and Leonora makes Peggy uncomfortable, but this does not stop Peggy from promoting art, including that of Leonora, in New York.

One day Leonora finds herself in Max’s studio while visiting Peggy’s mansion and sees that she is the subject, the muse of all Max’s work. Peggy enters and Leonora is at once struck with how unfair she has been to Peggy, to Renato, to Max, and to herself. She had always wondered what it would be like to be the muse of a great man and she realizes that it is simply not enough. She realizes that she and Max have been together for so long, she has forgotten where Max ends and she begins. Desperate to be her own person, she explains to Max that she cannot discover who she is unless she stops seeing him. She and Renato move to Mexico soon after. There in Mexico City, Leonora finds supportive women artists including Remedios Varo and Frida Kahlo. She never sees Max Ernst again.

In Leonora in the Morning Light author Michaela Carter shines a light upon Leonora Carrington, an important artist who, like so many other women artists, has been overlooked. She frames the narrative to begin at an art show in New York in 1997 and even those readers unfamiliar with Carrington immediately understand that Leonora has made a name for herself in the art world.

The book is told through the lens of Leonora, Max, and Peggy Guggenheim. It is a useful tool to show how they all influenced, and both fed and stunted each other. Time is not linear, especially at the beginning of the book, and, at times, this method slows the pace of the story.  

Even in the happiest of times at the novel’s start, when Max and Leonora are so much in love, there is a sinister feeling, a foreshadowing of the hardships to come. Carter is unflinching in revealing those hardships, whether they are life in an internment camp or Leonora’s descent into madness.

Ultimately, Leonora in the Morning Light is less a story about love, and more a story about finding your own authentic voice. It is the rare story of a great woman who knows what she must sacrifice to find out who she is.