The threat of censorship and the true definition of art have always been controversial topics in the art world. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s debut novel, “The Effects of Light,” makes a powerful statement about the role of art in the human experience and the futility of censorship.

The novel follows two sisters, Myla and Prudence, who grow up in Seattle and are raised by their widower father David, a professor of art history immersed in his research. A friend of the family, Ruth, sees the beauty of the girls and seeks to capture their precocious spirits through a series of photographic excursions. The pictures shock the art world and lead to national controversy, ultimately resulting in Prudence’s death.

Years later, the older sister, Myla, has changed her name to avoid the press and now teaches at an elite Eastern university, where she researches the vivid and unearthly shade of blue described by people who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. When she attends a lecture about the photography scandal given by her new boyfriend, Samuel, long-buried memories return to disrupt her carefully constructed new life.

Most of the characters, especially Prudence and Myla as a child, are well drawn out and realistic. The bond of sisterhood, irreplaceable yet taken for granted, is rendered with understated panache. Only one character, the stereotypically witty and overly understanding gay friend Marc, seems thrown in for comic relief with his incessant, over-the-top banter. Nevertheless, he proves to be only a minor annoyance because Beverly-Whittemore eschews stereotypes with the rest of her characters.

The novel also discusses the role of art, particularly the boundaries and limitations placed on it. Ultimately, the characters come to the conclusion that art should be autonomous and should be not be governed by human controls and limitations. Furthermore, the novel creates a broader dialogue because the subject matter Beverly-Whittemore chooses for her own art — the novel — reflects the subject matter of the controversial photographs.

Beverly-Whittemore’s prose demonstrates genuine knowledge of the settings she describes. University students will recognize the small and poignant details of college life, such as the fact that no one comes down to the dining hall on Saturdays until noon. She interrupts the narrative several times to describe the non-linearity of time, presented as David’s long-lost research.  Rather than becoming boring or didactic, this adds to the strength of the story and gives it even more realistic dimensions. 

In the novel, the girls’ father tells them the story of how Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin agreed to paint the same scene of peasants harvesting the summer’s crops; Van Gogh’s portrait turns out lively and brilliant, while Gauguin’s interpretation of the same scene is bleak and depressing. In this way, Beverly-Whittemore’s debut novel is proof that art should not confined by human hands and that, like life, it is ultimately interpreted in the eye of the beholder.

 

Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars

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