Monday, March 13, 2006

Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

This book intrigued me partly because it seemed to be very much about art and people involved in the art world.

Here's the basic premise of the story: The two daughters of a college art professor posed nude on a regular basis for their father’s photographer friend, Ruth. After the photos are displayed in a well-known gallery, and gain national attention as a result of the subject matter, the youngest daughter is kidnapped and killed. This is assumed to be connected to the photos. The older daughter becomes angry and leaves. Changes her name, cuts off all contact with her past. Years later, she receives a letter saying she needs to return home to retrieve a package. So she drops everything and returns to Washington state and reconnects with her past. She stays with family friends, and tries to decipher her father's notes about art -- a "ground-breaking" book on which he spent his life working. In her quest for information, she also uncovers several family secrets and love triangles involving her parents and tries to make peace with the loss of her sister and father, who had a fatal heart attack after his daughter's murder.

The present story follows the older daughter, while their past is revealed through first person flashbacks belonging to the younger daughter.

I thought I would enjoy reading about people who view art as a central point of their lives. But instead, reading this book made me aware of what I don't like about people who take art too seriously.

In the novel, the photos, when displayed created a great deal of controversy. People were offended by the use of children in nude photos. When describing this, the book takes a decidedly pro-photos stance. Then, through the characters dialogue, proceeds to explain why people were wrong to be offended, why the photos were not offensive, but rather "beautiful". The children in the book insist that they wanted to do the photos, this was their choice. This goes on for pages, the small child insisting that she loves the photos, they're a huge part to her life, a part of her life that she treasures. But as I read this, I kept thinking, you're only five (or whatever too young age she was)! How does a five year old know what she wants? At that age, children just want to make people happy. The father and photographer discuss at length how wonderful it is that the photos chronicle the children's growth, they show the transformation from a child to a young woman (in the case of the older daughter).

Their defense of the photos is presented in such a way to indicate that anyone who didn't agree with them was simply not intelligent enough to fully understand the importance of art.

Essentially, the book angered me. I do understand art. I appreciate art. I even appreciate different, unusual and controversial art. But I don't think that children should ever be exploited for the purpose of art. As I read this book, regardless of how the photo sessions or photographs were described, I felt like the children were being used as nothing more than props for the photographer and then convinced that they wanted to be objectified. This made me think of the ways in which abuse victims are convinced that they somehow enjoyed or provoked the abuse, when in fact they are too young to know otherwise. The father seemed to be so involved in his theories on art that he was oblivious as to what was happening to his children. As long as they were experiencing "art", nothing else mattered to him.

Another scene that bothered me: the older daughter, as an adult, is confronting her boyfriend, claiming he doesn't really know her and so she's going to show him her real self. To do this, she strips in front of him and and has some bizarre breakdown of sorts, pointing to her naked body shouting "this is me." Her actions seemed to support my belief that by being a prop in photographs, she now views herself as nothing more than a body. It was an uncomfortable scene to read and I almost stopped right there. But I stuck with it until the end, because I was near the end at that point.

I didn't enjoy this book. I don't recommend reading it at all.