Miranda Beverly-Whittemore was only 25 years old when she wrote The Effects of Light, her transfixing debut novel about art, ethics and family truths. Having posed as a figurative model for several internationally renowned photographers, Beverly-Whittemore is clearly familiar with the artistic world, and her tale draws the reader effortlessly in.
Myla and Pru Wolfe are fiercely intelligent and strikingly beautiful girls growing up in Oregon as the motherless daughters of a loving but often distracted professor father. His photographer friend Ruth first puts the girls in front of her camera when Myla is eight years old and Pru is three. Natural-born subjects, the sisters blossom before the eye of the lens, and their photographic sessions with Ruth become a focal element of their lives. Taught by their progressive and highly intellectual father to be open-minded and unashamed of their developing bodies, Myla and Pru often pose for Ruth wearing little or no clothing. It barely occurs to them that some might find the photos inappropriate, until they are featured in a New York City exhibit that sparks a heated national controversy. Suddenly, the girls are forced to rethink the role the photos play in their lives. And then violent tragedy pierces their once-idyllic world forever.
The book has two narrators: Myla, as an adult plumbing the depths of her long-buried past, and Pru, as the little girl growing up in front of the lens. As it shifts seamlessly back and forth through time, the story shapes up as an intriguing blend of mystery, family saga, artistic treatise, philosophical theory and moral discourse. If there is one quibble here, it is that Myla and Pru, as young children, sometimes spout dialogue that is a bit too precocious to ring true. But the characters are otherwise believable and always fascinating. This is the kind of book readers can easily plow through in one page-turning session, wishing that there was more to uncover once the last sentence is read.
Rebecca Krasney Stropoli writes from New York City.