The Butterfly House

I finally got round to reading a Harlequin book – it didn’t have Janice Radway’s promised feel good effect though, because it wasn’t a romance but a work of literary fiction under the imprint MIRA. (By the way, I can’t believe someone did a video clip – a trailer? – for Reading the Romance). Well, MIRA books are described as “commercial” literary fiction; I can see how this belongs to a popular genre, but I thought it had the aspect of a Bildungsroman as well. Well, in any case the novel was a product of an international publishing enterprise: it was published in the UK but both the language and the plot struck me as North American.

The Butterfly House is the story of a teenage girl growing up under the shadow her troubled family history. She is emotionally attached to her best friend’s mother, who is somewhat estranged from her own wayward daughter. I found the plot well structured and engaging, and the narration vivid. Two sections from the book:

Three, six, nine, the moose drank wine,

The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line.

Line broke. Monkey got choked.

All went to heaven in a little blue boat.

I was pretty good at jumping rope, Cincy was better, but Samantha never missed. […] Sam’s best friend was Patty Johnson. Patty had no coordination, but she had a wide, freckled face that laughed at everything, and besides, she brought the rope. The four of us met on the playground every recess of fifth grade. We’d chant the cadence, then count each rope-skip until the jumper missed – or Samantha reached a hundred. We knew half a dozen rhymes, but the moose one sounded so sophisticated and subversive it was our favourite” (30-31).

“Sometimes, when I was alone, fragments of my missing father rose in my consciousness like a chronic toothache. The memory hurt only when I returned to it, touching my tongue to the aching spot to probe the pain. By the time I reached puberty, I was accomplished at this. Whenever I wanted to pity or punish myself, whenever I longed for the drama and sweet suffering that defines adolescence, I called up the mystery of my father’s desertion” (72).

At times I thought there was too much drama, too much emotion packed into the plot, and I felt my nose burn at one point. But all that made the plot gripping (couldn’t put it down!) and it’s good to read such a book every now and then as it helps you gingerly probe your own emotions – a bit like how the protagonist does in the above passage. The crucial scene in the book that sealed everyone’s fate seemed a bit contrived in the beginning, but then it made more sense in the larger picture.

Homosexuality is a central theme in the novel and I felt I could smell homophobia when I reached the middle. Let’s say the book presents a sceptic vision of homosexuality, and the question that the characters are trying to answer (and the author wants us to think about, I think) is whether it’s hereditary – so, like a disease? This is the only aspect of the novel I felt unsure about, but other than that, I really liked it.

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