THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT is a luminous story --- part family drama, part mystery, and part rumination on the philosophy of art. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore combines these elements to create a poignant, thought-provoking, and well-crafted debut novel.
For more than a decade, Myla Rose Wolfe has been living under an assumed name. As Kate Scott, a medieval literature professor at a small, secluded East Coast college, she is free of the scandal associated with her family. But when she receives a package from a lawyer who's acting on behalf of an anonymous client, she realizes that no matter how far she runs, or how many details she fabricates about her life, she can't outrun her past. She heads home to Portland, Oregon, to relive the event that changed her family forever --- and to once again become Myla Wolfe.
In the first few pages of the book readers learn that Myla's father and 13-year-old sister, Pru, died within months of one another thirteen years ago, sending Myla into a tailspin of grief. The question of how they died is part of what fuels the narrative, and Beverly-Whittemore keeps the suspense heightened by parsing out details about what happened.
As children, Myla and Pru posed for family friend and photographer Ruth Handel. The photos --- taken over a period of ten years and some of which depict the young girls naked --- generated a national controversy about exploitation versus art. Myla and Pru's father, a brilliant, widowed college professor, was determined to instill in his daughters a sense of independence, and he allowed them to choose whether or not they wanted to be in Ruth's photographs. To the surprise of Myla and Pru, who enjoyed posing for the photographs and the sense of artistic accomplishment it gave them, the photos were viewed by some as child pornography.
Beverly-Whittemore makes interesting use of the photographs as a plot device, including sections called "proof" interspersed throughout the book. Each one describes a photograph of Myla and Pru, the circumstances of which are then revealed in the narrative. The story is propelled along through scenes set in the present as the reader follows Myla's quest to revisit her past, but the heart of the tale lies in the passages narrated by Pru. Reminiscent of THE LOVELY BONES, 13-year-old Pru tells her own story and is a vital presence in the novel. The events she recounts also shed light on Myla's character, their sisterly bond and the dynamics of the family.
If you pared THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT down to its basic elements, it still would be a compelling read with engaging characters and a suspenseful storyline. But Beverly-Whittemore doesn't stop there. Through contrasting images of light and dark, artist and audience, past and present, she has created a thinking-person's page-turner. The effect is truly remarkable…and dare I say enlightening?
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on January 21, 2011
The Effects of Light