The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

The Effects of Light is a debut novel from Miranda Beverly-Whittemore published by Warner Books. The story is told from the point of view of Pru and Myla Wolfe, sisters bound by a unique childhood; Pru, the narrator, is the younger of the girls, not quite five when we meet her. It doesn’t compromise the plot to know that Pru is dead and we encounter her only in flashback. The girls were subjects of nude photographs, taken over a decade as they grew to maturity. Their mother is dead and their father, David, is a professor of art history. He has strong ideas of about the role of art as the highest expression of beauty we can achieve; when he encourages photographer Ruth Handel into creating and displaying her collection of photos he sets off a chain reaction that lingers for years.

The author chose a risky strategy to frame her narrative; it opens in Pru’s voice as a child before switching to the adult life of her sister. Myla has taken on a new name. She’s teaching at an east coast college, a long way from her Oregon roots. The story is incited by a lecture delivered by Myla’s lover, a fellow professor who implies in a lecture that Myla’s father was responsible for Pru’s death.

Myla flees to Portland to the home of old friends and surrogate parents. She’s receiving mysterious packages, her father’s notes and a manuscript, that force Myla to confront her rage and question the premise that David’s pursuit of beauty ruined her life. The scenes in Portland that form the bulk of the novel hinge on this unresolved struggle to understand her father, her sister’s death, and Myla’s inability to engage in meaningful adult relationships.

These moments are interspersed with passages from Pru and sections the author calls ‘proofs’ narrative descriptions of photo shoots; the novel sags at times, slowed by plot devices as well as Myla’s proclivity for abrupt emotional responses. Pru emerges as the character we care most about, and the circumstances of her death provide the novel’s most powerful moment. The metaphor of light in the study of art often freezes the narrative in awkward ways; it’s the risk alluded to earlier, the risk of trying to capture something ephemeral yet vital without resorting to melodrama. The author uses prose to guide us through a visual experience while not neglecting the emotional impact the images create. She doesn’t always succeed at this in part because Myla’s character shies away from confronting her pain; the author seems constrained when writing about Myla, free while describing Pru. This is her thematic intent, to describe the passage from girlhood to adulthood through the perspective of experience that engenders caution, regret, anger and loss. The Effects of Light is well worth reading for the complexity of what the book conveys.