The Photograph
by Virginia Ellis, historical (2003)
Ballantine, $22.95, ISBN 0-345-44484-1


Virginia Ellis' The Photograph follows a year in the lives of seventeen-year old Maddy Marshall and her sister-in-law Ruth. The year is 1941. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor on Maddy's seventeenth birthday. Soon after, her boyfriend Lyle and her brother Dave are enlisted. 1941 will see Ruth suffering a miscarriage, Maddy being at the receiving end of an act of physical violence, and the women waiting and looking for loves new and old as the men are out there at the frontlines facing death and worse.

It sounds good, and I am expecting a good time. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how the reader prefers her wartime dramas, The Photograph rarely ventures outside the sweet and sunny territory it keeps itself in. Yes, Ruth miscarried, and yes, Maddy is raped - I don't think this is a spoiler as I see this plot point being peppered all over the reviews of this book by print publications - but the author shrugs off these traumas as if they are nothing more than stones in the women's shoes. Maddy, after being raped, comments that if she is to be ruined, she'd rather be ruined by the handsome English Lt Stephen Tull-Martin whom she dances with one evening when she and Ruth are briefly reunited with their men. I first thought this is just shock setting in, but Maddy is up and about the next few chapters, never really giving much thought to her rape other than the occasional "I am ruined" remarks. Likewise, Ruth spends the whole book agonizing over Dave, crying over his letters, the usual, but she rarely display any real emotion that tugs at me. The way the author introduces these grim unpleasant aspects of life in her story, only to then try to gloss them over as if her genteel readers will throw up over all over their long tableclothed reading tables if the author reminds them too often that Maddy is - eeuw, horror - raped - well, this author's superficial approach to these grim elements in her story causes the book to fail in getting to resonate with me. The whole thing is too sunny, too naive, and hence, too unrealistic.

The Photograph refers to a photo of Davey and some men. Ruth could see the future in this photo, which she realizes when she notices that a man in the photo has vanished and this man turns up dead soon after. She will notice Maddy in the photo crying the day Maddy is raped. And so on and on. Ruth begins to pray that Davey in the photo will always be there and smiling. Unfortunately, given the author's way of treating darker issues with an unrealistically sunny-smiley manner, there is really no sense of suspense in this book. The happily ever after is inevitable, and at the end of the day, I get this feeling that the characters don't really change or grow.

Compounding the problem is Maddy. As a seventeen-year old, she isn't interesting enough as a character. If she's supposed to be the Scarlett O'Hara in the author's story, I'm not seeing it. Maddy is just a little girl, and an unrealistic one at that judging from her swift rebound from her rape.

In the end, this book doesn't engage my emotions. It will be a pleasant read, but I am often very confused by the characters' unnaturally calm and tranquil reactions to the tumultuous upheavals in their lives. The Photograph is a written word equivalent of a coffee table book filled with overly romaticized photos of handsome young soldiers during World War 2 - it's too neat, too tidy, too much in pastel that it ends up as ersatz as a Thomas Kinkade landscape. I'm not asking for melodrama, mind you, but here, the characters are on a Sally Struthers trip to Pleasantville and they aren't stopping anytime soon. Maybe this book will find a more receptive welcome with readers that like their books with a little bit of issues, not too much, just a little, very, very little, that sort of thing.

For readers concerned about Southern vainglory overkill or Uncle Sam chauvinism, it's probably good news that these elements are toned down to a minimum in The Photograph. Then again, come to think of it, everything else - drama, poignancy, risk - is at a minimum as well. Come on, Ms Ellis, embrace the dark side a little. You don't make Carebear daycare trips out of World War 2. It is just not done, really.

Rating: 66


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