The Effects of Light

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"Throughout their childhood, Myla and Pru Wolfe pose for a haunting series of photographs, many involving nudity. Young, beautiful, and motherless, the sisters bond fiercely in their shared sense of loss, unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and status as favorite subjects for family friend and photographer Ruth Handel. The photographs fire each girl's psyche with a sense of artistic accomplishment." Unitl their world irrevocably shifts. Thirteen years later, Myla receives a mysterious communication that calls her back to her past. Awkwardly ...
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Overview

"Throughout their childhood, Myla and Pru Wolfe pose for a haunting series of photographs, many involving nudity. Young, beautiful, and motherless, the sisters bond fiercely in their shared sense of loss, unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and status as favorite subjects for family friend and photographer Ruth Handel. The photographs fire each girl's psyche with a sense of artistic accomplishment." Unitl their world irrevocably shifts. Thirteen years later, Myla receives a mysterious communication that calls her back to her past. Awkwardly fleeing the one man who has managed to pierce her defenses, she flies home to Oregon, where a series of packages are sent to her in measured installments. They are time bombs of revelations, and artifacts that force her to relive - and come to terms with - the event that changed her family forever.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Beverly-Whittemore investigates the relationship between art and life in an engaging but uneven debut that reveals both her promise and her youth (she was born in 1976). As children, Myla Wolfe and her now deceased sister, Pru, posed for a series of provocative photographs. Because of an unnamed (but aggressively insinuated) tragedy, Myla has spent her adult life as a history professor named Kate Scott (though an unconvincing one: "So much passion over something so potentially boring: medieval research!... She felt lost in ideas"). A mysterious letter and a colleague's lecture draw her back to her hometown, where she tries to put together the puzzle of her dead father's academic work, reconnect with those she left behind, rediscover herself as Myla and forge a new love with the aforementioned colleague. Her quest is juxtaposed with the parallel narrative of the tragedy's buildup, as told by her dead sister. Beverly-Whittemore gets points for her ambitious plot, but a naive intellectual enthusiasm overwhelms the novel, and in trying to incorporate too many heavy themes, she obscures the novel's focus: is this a mystery? an allegory? a graduate student essay? At one point, Myla recalls how her father congratulated her for refusing to learn to read yet, thus demonstrating that "she wasn't ready... to lose the big picture." Beverly-Whittemore doesn't seem ready to lose it, either-but next time, perhaps she'll exert more control over her far-reaching visions. Agent, Anne Hawkins. 4-city author tour. (Feb. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
First novelist Beverly-Whittemore tells the story of Myla and Prudence Wolfe, who are raised after the death of their mother by their academic father and his offbeat collection of friends. At a very young age, the sisters become "camera girls" for family friend and photographer Ruth Handel. Too young to see that society could take issue with their often nude depictions, the girls are sheltered from the media maelstrom that Ruth's gallery showing fuels. It isn't until many years later, when Prudence is dead and Myla is living across the country under an assumed name, that the entire story of the past begins to unfold. Told in alternating time frames by each girl, this novel shows Myla learning that good intentions and independent thinking may have led to disastrous results as she returns home to confront the ghosts of her past. A smoothly written narrative makes this an excellent choice for most public libraries, and it should be popular where novels dealing with family crisis and personal growth have a following. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/04.]-Leann Restaino, Jameson Health Syst. Lib., New Castle, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thought-provoking debut about a young woman attempting to untangle a tortured and confused past. After living under a false name and identity for 20 years, East Coast academic Myla Wolfe returns to her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest to face her demons: the memories surrounding a controversial exhibition of photographs featuring herself and her late sister in various stages of undress and/or nude, taken when they were children. The result was a barrage of humiliating attention and the death of the sister, although not until the very end is the connection between the photos and the death made clear. Were the pictures art? Pornography? Clearly, the photographer believed they were art, as did the girls' father, an art history professor profoundly committed to freedom of expression and the notion of relativism-the idea that there are multiple and equally valid interpretations to virtually everything, especially works of art. Still, Myla believes her father, now long dead, betrayed them by allowing the photographs to be taken, unwittingly using his daughters as pawns to reflect his cultural politics. In addition to grappling with a boyfriend, another academic who has his own agenda in connection with the photographs, Myla begins sorting through her father's papers in an effort to understand him. And in the end, she buys into his thesis that things are always more complicated than they seem, accepting the idea, offered by a family friend, that her father allowed the pictures to be shot for personal, not cultural, reasons having to do with his late wife. This revelation, like many others, comes out of thin air. Entertaining but schematic, with characters' motivations often sounexpected as to be nearly implausible. Agent: Anne Hawkins/John Hawkins & Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446533294
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/28/2005
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

First Chapter

The Effects of Light


By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Warner Books

Copyright © 2005 Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-446-53329-7


Chapter One

i step out of the car into dust. Just one step and my flip-flopped foot is brown with sweat and air and the dust all around us. Off the vinyl, my knee backs are sticky and help me pretend there's wind here. Only for a minute, though, and then they dry. Myla steps out too and she slams the front door and scowls at me. She goes to help Ruth. She thinks I should be helping too. Instead I roll up the window slowly and hope they unload before I'm done. Myla says she knows my tricks and she's right. Even now, even with trees above us, the sun feels like a huge quilt pressing on my head. Like the stuff that goes in quilts, the insulation, the waffle part. Hot, like you can't breathe as deep as you want. Smothering.

Myla slams the hatch shut. I can tell it's her without even looking because it's her kind of slam: a little angry, but mostly bored and bossy and knowing what's about to come. She wants credit and thinks that no matter how hard she tries, she won't get it. She helps and I stand here. Then Ruth's voice comes, bright bells across the hot hot day: "Pru, come carry." I close my door softly and walk around to the back of the car. Myla already has one of the coolers that Ruth has rigged up for carrying film. Myla's also trying to put the backpack on when Ruth says, "There's no way you can carry the backpack like that while we're hiking. Give it to Pru." So Myla puts it on my back and I smile at her over my shoulder. Ruth says, "Keys?" and Myla holds up her right hand and jingles them in the air. "Okay," says Ruth. "Good to go." And she hoists the tripod onto one shoulder and takes off, out of the parking area and into the grass. The dust billows up, brown coughing air, and we walk into it. Myla goes last. She pushes me into place in front of her.

The river air cools us when we walk, but I still feel hot all over until we stop for a drink. Then I get shivery. I move out on the rock to the break in the trees. I lie in the sun and it warms me. Myla comes and sits next to me and sloshes the canteen in the air. She's whistling, quiet, humming too, and then Ruth says, "I know we've been to this part of the river a million times, but I want to take you guys in a little farther, if you're up for a bit of a hike. It's only about half a mile." She's making her voice sound excited so we'll get excited, even though it means carrying everything for a lot longer. "Oh, come on," she says. "I'm hoping to work on this one ravine; you guys are going to die when you see it." She looks at us, squinting her eyes. "What you're doing right now is beautiful, but there's no way I can get it in this light. Remember where your feet and hands are, and maybe we can redo it later on." Without looking, I can hear her getting the heavy tripod ready for lifting up and balancing on her shoulder.

Myla rolls her eyes. She says quietly, "Like we were sitting this way so she'd want to take a picture." I know what she's saying, and I also know she's right and a little bit wrong. I did come lie on the rock because I was cold, but also because I wanted Ruth to see. Not just because she'd want to take my picture but because she'd see Myla and me together, two girls basking, and think, "I've got to capture that." Then she'd take pictures of Myla and me together, and Myla would still want them. And things would feel the same again.

We catch up with Ruth and she tells us a joke about Kissinger and Nixon and Kennedy on the Titanic. I don't get all of it but I like the part where Kissinger says, "Women and children first," and Nixon says, "Fuck the women and children," and Kennedy says, "Do you think we have time?" Myla and I giggle and everything feels laughing and loose. But then Ruth says, half-joking, because she knows our dad swears all the time, "Don't tell David I said that," and Myla says, fast, "God, Ruth, we're not little kids anymore. Pru's ten. I'm fifteen. Remember? I think we can handle a little swearing," and the dark shadow comes back. Then we turn a corner and climb up a big boulder and see out over this perfect place of green and water and smooth rocks. Ruth laughs and says, "Well, maybe it's more of a lagoon than a ravine. What's the difference? Myla, you always seem to know that kind of thing."

"I do not," says Myla, still grumpy. Ruth's already setting up the tripod and stretching the black accordion-paper part of the camera. She gestures me over and opens the backpack, pulling out the delicate lens and unwrapping it softly. She touches my shoulder and says to both of us, "Just put the stuff up there, on the bank. Make sure none of it gets wet." Myla mutters, "We know," and I nudge her foot. She gives me a look but I know she's not as mad as she seems.

Now's the part that always feels strange because who knows when or what will start the shoot. It's like the three of us do a dance around one another, and either Myla or I will react to something in a way that makes Ruth stop and say, "Hold still." But sometimes the things I think will make her excited don't work and instead we'll just eat sandwiches and not take pictures at all. But today I lean over to look at a tiny swimming frog and Ruth says, "Pru, hold it. Myla, can I have the reflector?" and they're both already into place, Ruth grabbing her dark-cloth and shrouding it over her shoulders and her camera like they have secrets, and Myla shaking the reflector into a big round circle of white that gleams into my eye and makes me want to blink. Myla already knows it's too much so she stands back, moves the white to a different angle, and shimmers my ankle a little bit but not much more. Ruth grabs the cooler and pulls out a film holder, focuses the camera, slides the holder into the back of the camera, and checks the shutter. She pulls out the slide, leaving the film inside the camera, and says, "Look here, but just with your eyes," and then cllllick goes the shutter and Ruth says, "One more. This time no clothes." So I memorize my feet in their certain way on the rocks and my hands pressing on my knees and where my hair slides down my cheek and then I stand up and take off my dress and throw Ruth that and my underpants. They get wet when I step through them out of the water, but they'll dry. I get back in place, even though it'll never be exactly right, and look back down in the water. The tiny frog has swum away. Ruth says, "Head down a little," and she's looking through the camera again, the eye of it all the way open. Then she focuses, takes another holder, pushes it in, pulls out the slide, and says, "One-two-three," and cllllllick it's taken. Ruth stands up and squints her eyes. That's the sign to let me stand up, and she turns to Myla and says, "Now you. There, where Pru is. And Pru-y, you back there on that rock."

Myla walks up and she's already naked and takes my place and I can see she's proud, proud to be noticed. Ruth says, "Crouch, Myla. Beautiful. Lovely hands," and I take my place back on the boulder and lean my body into the sun. "Arms out, Pru," Ruth calls. And out my arms grow into the air. And Ruth says something funny, something I can't hear but I know it's a joke because it makes Myla giggle. And then Ruth calls, "Beautiful, girls. Beautiful." The sun is on me and I smile. What an easy day to make pictures. I want to stay and stay like this, with Myla in front and me in the sun, me out of focus and happy. Ruth calls out instructions, and for each picture I lower my head, or lift up my arms, or turn to one side or the other. Myla stays the same in front of me, even her back seeming full of joy. And everything is cool and warm at once.

A LATE-APRIL BREEZE SHIVERED across the lake as Kate Scott and Samuel Blake walked at the edge of the water, almost holding hands. These words repeated themselves over and over in Kate's mind as she and Samuel walked beside each other, really almost holding hands. The brisk air had driven most of the students into the warmth of early supper in the dining hall, so not holding hands for reasons of discretion seemed hardly necessary. Samuel wanted to touch her, she could feel it, and though being wanted was not altogether new, what was exciting was the part of the experience that was new: Kate's wanting to touch him. Just a graze of his finger and she'd be undone. She wanted to laugh at herself. This was so unusual. What was she thinking?

Samuel had arrived at the college in early September, fresh from a doctoral program in American cultural studies. Because he was new and good-looking, he stood out at the president's reception for incoming faculty. Both Kate and her colleague and best friend, Mark Rios, had designated Samuel Blake as the most likely candidate for the role of new friend and/or lover. Samuel didn't swing Mark's direction-the mention of an ex-girlfriend had cleared up whatever mystery there might have been-so Mark kissed Kate's hand, bowing, admitting defeat. "We lose all the good ones to your side," he said, and Samuel blushed at Mark's teasing. As the evening cooled, Kate, Mark, and Samuel talked and talked on the president's lawn, forgetting the earlier innuendo about who might sleep with whom, the other faculty milling about, and the impending school year, and Kate's body grew warm. It was more than the wine. She recognized within her a small burst of joy; she was relaxing in the company of others.

That had been early in the school year, when it was customary to be full of hope about everything: class enrollments, committee work, departmental politics. By late September the first cool days served as a reminder that time was racing, that no matter how hard Kate worked, she'd never be able to read all the papers as thoroughly as she wanted, to advise all her students as closely as they deserved, to complete as much of her own research as she'd planned. Mark and Samuel and a number of other young hires had launched a Thursday-night tradition informally dubbed "Beer 'n' Pool," but try as she might, Kate was always too busy to attend. For the first time at the college, she felt herself resenting the work she'd made for herself, work she'd previously embraced. When she'd arrived five years before, very few students had shown interest in medieval literature; now she knew she had only herself to blame for being so overcommitted. Students liked her even though she worked them hard; they flocked to her courses and jammed her office hours, eager to speak with the resident expert on valor and courtly love.

As for the role courtly love played in her own life, Kate kept intending to fall in love when she had enough time and met the right man. Until that happened, her friendship with Mark Rios was just about perfect. He was gay, so their relationship had none of the complications of sex, and yet she still had someone to change overhead lightbulbs for her and tell her if she needed a haircut and tease her about not changing the toilet-paper roll. In return, she offered unconditional encouragement for his research and played a mean game of Scrabble. Over the last half-decade they'd established a pattern of passing October breaks in New York City, winter breaks in Mark's modest off-campus house, and Augusts on a lake in New Hampshire. They discussed their childhoods rarely and only in passing; Mark's Catholic family in Maryland had felt betrayed by the revelation of his sexual preference, and Kate referred to her background only in vague terms. She told Mark that her father, an attorney, had died years before, and she had no living family. The past was a subject they never touched, and as far as Kate was concerned, she couldn't have asked for more.

But then there was the panic. One cloudy afternoon in November, Kate opened her mailbox and found a thick cream envelope sporting an unknown return address. Inside was a letter from a lawyer named Marcus Berger. He'd enclosed several flight coupons and referred to them in precise language, urging her to come home. She'd been found. Of course she didn't mention anything to Mark, she couldn't, she simply shoved the envelope into the bottom drawer of her desk as soon as she made it safely back to her apartment. She promised herself she'd throw the letter away, but as the days passed, she found herself unable to touch it long enough to get rid of it. She tried to ignore its dark tug on her mind, the way it kept her awake at night, the horror she felt about keeping secrets from Mark. She told herself that as long as the past was closed, there were no secrets and no problems.

She felt guilty about her silence and knew she'd feel better if she put aside her work for one night and showed up for Beer 'n' Pool, if only for Mark's sake. He'd asked her, somewhat defensively, what was so wrong with Samuel, and Kate knew Mark was irritated by what he saw as her pickiness. The truth was, she could feel herself being tugged toward Samuel Blake, could feel herself springing to life when he waved at her from across the library. She even knew she was dressing for him on Monday and Wednesday mornings, when they passed each other on the path behind the student center, striding to their respective classes. She tried to keep her expectations simple; she'd go to the next Beer 'n' Pool, sit next to Mark, chat with Samuel, and remind herself that life didn't come in huge, sweeping, irreversible strokes. This life, the life she'd chosen, could be simple. She'd just break down her attraction to Samuel into easy, digestible pieces.

But by the time Kate made it to the pool hall in mid-December, Samuel was on the cusp of what would become a highly visible romance with Natalie Cormier, the petite French professor who was obviously a fan of both beer and pool. Kate found herself chatting with a few members of the chemistry department, idly watching Samuel as he held back Natalie's long hair so she could take a particularly difficult shot. It was just as well. Samuel and Natalie left early, and on the walk home, Kate had no problem telling Mark, "I mean, Samuel's a great guy, and yeah, he's attractive, but that's not everything. He's happy with Natalie, and I'm happy for them. Obviously nothing's going to happen between us. So that's that." She didn't know whether to take Mark's silence for agreement, but she more than half agreed with herself, and besides, there was always work to consume her.

And so the snow and sleet and freezing rain came and went. At the end of February, Mark walked into her apartment, beaming, his arms spread wide. "They broke up!" he declared, and Kate couldn't help but notice two rather alarming things: first, she knew exactly who Mark was talking about, and second, she was happy. Mark urged her to call Samuel: "You know, the whole 'cry on my shoulder' thing, and before long, he's crying on your ..." But it wasn't until the tight buds of early spring had set up residence on every branch that Kate really saw Samuel Blake again.

It was eight A.M. on a Saturday, and Kate and Mark were sitting in their usual spot in the deserted student dining hall.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore Copyright © 2005 by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 22, 2009

    Interesting read

    I really enjoyed this book. The plot is different from anything I have ever read. There was something very refreshing about the subject-matter. The development of the main character was also interesting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2005

    Outstanding!

    This novel expertly combines a very personal and moving narrative with a series of though-provoking theories about art. It has actually changed my perspective on art and inspired me to learn more about art history and theory. I was moved to tears throughout most of my reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2005

    Beautiful and unique

    This is a wonderfully unique novel with characters that I came to really care for. While that has happened to me before, what hasn't is that I felt like I wanted to be involved in their conversations, weigh in on their thoughts and be involved in the dialogue. This story gave me new ideas and really got inside my head. It is beautifully written and I can't wait for more from Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2005

    I couldn't put it down...

    I was given an advance copy of this book by a friend, after he insisted that I must read it immediately. I read a lot of popular fiction, and this was by far one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. The basic story is crafted as a page-turning mystery, and it was one that kept me reading for multiple hours at a time (which I rarely do). But beyond that it is a beautifully written, emotional story about love, fear and forgiveness. People seem to be calling it ambitious for a first novelist, but that's what I loved about it so much. This book made me think about things in new ways, something I don't come across very often in today's new fiction. I can't wait for more from Beverly-Whittemore.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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