At a chance encounter at a Berlin soirée in 1928, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures in one frame three very different women, whose lives are followed throughout the novel: up-and-coming German actress Marlene Dietrich; Anna May Wong, the world's first Chinese American star; and Leni Riefenstahl, whose work as a director would first make her famous—then infamous.
It is hard to summarize a sprawling and ambitious novel like this, so I won't—but it is expertly woven, its characters alive and full-bodied. Blending questions about pop culture, war, and art, Delayed Rays of a Star is that rare book that is neither high- nor low-brow, refusing such facile dichotomies and playing, instead, in the messiness of the grey areas.
Much of the known historical record weaves through Koe’s pages, which makes for an eclectic cast of secondary characters ... Koe handles conflicting female perspectives so well that, for many readers, gender may be her main point. Such a reading seems too limiting, though ... Koe’s characters are not merely different slices of America ... Ultimately, the novel’s greatest accomplishment is a masterful subversion of the Hollywood myth.
... encyclopedic in its detail and fit to bursting with invention ... marks an ambitious step forward as [Koe] concocts an expansive, criss-crossing narrative that somersaults back and forth in time ... While the [secondary characters'] misadventures tend to be less gripping than the exploits of the novel’s central trio, they all represent Koe’s central preoccupations with sexual identity, the crossing of political and personal boundaries, and how fate and blind chance intermix ... Immense in scope, peppered with conversational musings, and touched by melancholy ... Much like the divas she writes about, Koe’s novel struts flamboyantly all over the map, yet what lingers is the heartbreaking grandeur of her protagonists’ existences. Like the stars in Rilke’s poem, they have burned out, but their light persists, and Koe has fashioned a worthy tribute to their enduring impact.