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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Butterfly House a Little Unrealistic, but Engrossing

The first chapter of Marcia Preston's The Butterfly House sucker-punched me with its intensity and mystery. After such an intriguing opening, I just couldn't resist reading the rest of the book. None of the subsequent sections were quite as compelling as the first, but was an engrossing read.

As the novel opens, Roberta Dutreau hides in her isolated home, surrounded only by snowy hills. When she spies a stranger turning up her driveway, she panics, opening the door only when the man addresses her by her childhood nickname, Bobbie Lee. Despite his use of her nickname, Roberta has never met this man before. She recognizes his face only from a photograph her friend Cincy kept by her bedside, a "photograph from years ago, a young man in a uniform with the same black eyes - my best friend's missing father" (11). The man, Harley Jaines, has come with one purpose - to compell Roberta to tell the truth about a horrific event in her past that landed Cincy's mother in prison. Roberta, who has only recently climbed out of the pit of her own insanity, knows she can't revisit her past without risking another downward spiral. Yet, the door to her past has been opened and her mind won't let her close it.

Shaken from her encounter with Harley, Roberta climbs into her car and begins the long journey to Spokane, where Lenora Jaines - Harley's lover and Cincy's mother - resides in a women's prison. As she drives, Roberta's mind combs over her childhood in Shady River, Oregon, a small town on the Columbia River. When Roberta moves there as a child, her life is bleak and lonely. Her mother, Ruth, cleans hotel rooms by day and drinks herself into a coma by night. Roberta finds her salvation in Cincy Jaines, a vibrant girl who takes the new girl under her wing. When Roberta visits Cincy's home, she feels more at home there than anywhere. She is particularly attracted by the house's glassed-in porch, where plants and butterflies are cultivated by Cincy's scientist mother, Lenora. As Roberta and Cincy spend more and more time together, Lenora becomes Roberta's pseudo mother, a relationship which deepens as Roberta shows increasing interest in Lenora's scientific projects. Not only does Cincy become envious of their relationship, but Ruth is so jealous she accuses Roberta and Lenora of being lesbians. The anger that blossoms between the women erupts in a violent act that leaves Ruth dead, Roberta in a mental hospital, Lenora in prison and Cincy on the run. When Roberta emerges from the facility, she marries, moves to Canada and tries to put the entire situation behind her. She has done so with relative success until Harley Jaines shows up on her doorstep.

When Roberta finally arrives in Spokane, Lenora warns her to keep quiet about their past. Roberta is only too glad to comply, until she realizes that even she doesn't know what really happened that night. As she searches for her own answers, Roberta must confront her demons and decide if she can save Lenora and, ultimately, herself.

Marcia Preston delivers a major punch in the first chapter, then weaves the past and present together expertly throughout the rest of the book to create a compelling, suspenseful story. It's a bit predictable - I guessed several of the "secrets" long before Roberta did - but I still found the book engrossing. It's not warm and fuzzy by any means; in fact, it's downright bleak, but the story is ultimately about truth and redemption. I can't say I loved it, but I did find The Butterfly House an engrossing read.

Now, you know I always have weird issues with the books I read. Like I said, a lot of this novel takes place in a small, fictional town on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. The story describes Cincy and Roberta biking across a bridge to the Washington side to pick up groceries. This detail bugged me because I grew up in this exact sort of town (although it was real and on the Washington side), and the idea of two little girls biking across a bridge to Oregon is a little unrealistic. All the bridges I've crossed in this part of Washington/Oregon are very high and very narrow. Although people do bike across them occasionally, I have NEVER seen children doing it. Furthermore, I would NEVER allow any child to make such a dangerous trip. So, yeah, that detail bugged me through the whole book. I told you it was a small, weird thing.

So, anyway, I'm giving this book a B+ because it's a little predictable and some of the situations seem unrealistic. Overall, though, it's a well-written and interesting story.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your review of this book much more than I enjoyed the book itself!


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