The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly- Whittemore

The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 349 pages, 2005

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: I liked the title and the cover. Not what an author wants to hear, I’m sure, but there you have it.

Synopsis: Where does art stop and child pornography begin? Two sisters, Myla and

Pru, spent much of their childhood posing for nude photographs that caused an uproar over

whether they were a true portrayal of the innocence of youth or simply fodder for

child-abusing perverts. Thirteen years pass, until the day Myla finds her easy-going grad
student life disrupted by the arrival of a letter that lures her back into the past and spurs her into hopping on a flight headed for her hometown, finally ready to uncover the secrets of her family’s past after years of wanting nothing more than to forget.

Why you should read this book: Beverly-Whittemore gives her readers two unique

views: that of Pru as a child, largely free and innocent of the greater context of her

photos in the world; and the mixed opinions of Myla as an adult, lost somewhere between

remembering her happy childhood and knowing the terrible consequences that came out of it. The best writing in the book comes through the eyes of Pru,

when the story is relatively simple and not bogged down in academics. Pru’s good-natured yet

spirited personality entices the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what happened

to her, as we gather from Myla’s story it was nothing good. Despite her unusual situation, the focus spans outward and we’re allowed to see that

there’s a real kid behind the photographs, a kid who, for example, wants the approval of her

big sister but wouldn’t want her to know she does; a kid who secretly wants to paint but is frustrated that the images in her mind can’t make their way to the canvas. Myla’s character is a bit more muddled from all of the baggage she’s carrying, but

her situation can certainly hold the reader’s attention – she’s got her own number of

secrets to reveal. A good fictional book that can really make you ponder our society’s

attitude towards art and what is quite possibly our society’s biggest, if not only, taboo in

art, the Lolita issue – is the problem really the nude children, or is it how adults impose

their own shames and perversions onto such an image, unable to remember innocence?

Why you should avoid this book: Y’know those moments a lot of people get after

they read something with an idea that blows their mind, and they look pityingly/smugly on

the rest of the world for not being as enlightened as they are, while the rest of the world

can’t look back because they’re too busy rolling their eyes? Yeah, the last third of the

back is a little heavy on this pretentious, I’m-the-first-person-to-ever-think-of-this kind

of attitude. Myla makes arguements that she wishes everyone could form their own opinions

about the photos without the background of cultural bias, while simultaneously making it

clear to the reader the only intelligent opinion on the topic of art and censorship

is her own. The final third of the book also gets a touch melodramatic as Beverly-Whittemore

tries too hard to force deep meaning and enlightment upon her characters. Hopefully it’s a

first-novel issue, and in future books she’ll be able to carry on telling a good story

without a university lecture breaking out.

Opening paragraph:

Two girls lie languid on the floor of a room streaming with light. There’s a

window seat beyond them, but it holds no pillows. On the floor, underneath the girls, is a

thick rug. You can tell that the rug is comfortable, infinitely more comfortable than the

hard wood of the window seat, so it makes sense that the girls are there on the


Fabulous quotes:

When it’s a shoot, it’s hard work but it’s fun. Myla calls Ruth ‘The Queen of

Inspiration’ because that’s what Ruth becomes. We’ll be there in the afternoon, sitting and

painting, drinking tea, listening to Mozart’s Requiem. Then all of a sudden Ruth’s

eyes work in a different way. She’ll be looking at my arm one minute, and I’ll know she’s

thinking it’s just my arm, and then the next minute I can see her looking at the shape of

it, how it moves, what muscles in it work what way. And then she says something like, ‘Pru.

There. Don’t move.’ And she goes and gets a camera, sometimes the thirty-five-millimeter, or

if the light is right, it’ll be the eight-by-ten. Then it’s like her mind has power over her

whole body, and she won’t get tired. She’ll work until there’s no more film. She’ll work

until there’s no more light. She’ll work until Myla or I finally open our mouths and say

we’re hungry or bored.

She’d pointed her finger at both of them and said, ‘Don’t you dare come near me.

Don’t you dare.’ They’d begged her to come in. She’d stayed outside and continued on. ‘You

know whose fault this is? It’s yours. All of yours. You were the fucking adults.’

words from that night rang in her ears, turned them red against her skull. She could still

taste a trace of that raw rage, even though she knew things were infinitely more complicated

than that. But perhaps the core feeling was true. Righteous. So many people – strangers

around the country, reading their local paper and watching news – would have agreed with her

at the time. Blame was everywhere, blanketing everything.

Also recommended: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Possession by

A.S. Byatt; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Also by this author: The Effects of Light is Beverly-Whittemore’s first


Would I read more by this author? Probably, presuming she outgrows the bombastic

attitude. I was kind of left with the impression that if she’d sat on the book for a few

years, and rewrote parts with a more experienced outlook (she was born in 1976), The

Effects of Light could have been lifted from good to great. So we’ll see what the future


&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2005

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