Two Sentence Summary: What would happen if the story from the famous opera, Butterfly’s Child were real? A three-year-old boy — the product of an affair between an American lieutenant and a Japanese geisha — is adopted by his father and new wife, Kate, and transplanted to a family farm in rural Illinois.
One Sentence Review: Butterfly’s Child is hard to put down, but an almost-too-clever mid-book revelation and general feeling of quickness in the storu left me wondering whether this is a book that will stay with me in the long-term.
Long Review: Angela Davis-Gardner’s novel Butterfly’s Child begins just before the tragic ending of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly: Lt. Benjamin Pinkerton returns to Japan with his new wife, Kate, after finding out that the relationship he had with a geisha, Cio-Cio-san (Butterfly) resulted in a child. In the three years since Pinkerton left Japan, Cio-Cio-san has held on to the hope that he will return and they will be a family. When she sees Kate, Cio-Cio-san is crushed. She makes Pinkerton promise that he will take care of their child, then kills herself in front of her son.
As the novel takes off from the story of the opera, Pinkerton and Kate, deeply in love, decide to adopt the young boy, whom they name Benji, but vow to keep his status as Pinkerton’s illegitimate son a secret. Back on the farm in Illinois, Benji struggles to accept his new family and new life, upper-crust Kate struggles with life on the farm and dealing with her husbands infidelity, and Pinkerton… well, he just seems to struggle with everything. The novel follows Benji as he grows up and, eventually, decides to seek out the story of his past on a long journey that takes him across the United States and, finally, back to Japan.
I have to tell you, I tore through this novel. It reads really, really quickly, both because the prose is simple yet elegant and because the time-frame of the story is much more expansive than the premise suggests. Davis-Gardner’s writing isn’t anything especially fancy, but it is lush and descriptive and, as it switches perspectives, manages to convey the spirit of the character effectively. I liked, for example, this passage from Benji’s perspective when he was quite young:
The next morning when Benji was feeding the chickens the old woman came out to the pen. When she reached down to one of the chickens Benji thought she was trying to pet it but she took it by the neck and began to swing ir around and around with its body and feet making circles in the air and it made a terrible noise and all the other chickens ran away and tried to fly. Benji shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears and screamed as lous as he could to be heard on the other side of the kappa world and didn’t stop until the old woman stuffed her apron in his mouth.
There’s nothing especially remarkable about that passage, but the long sentences and very specific language give a sense of what the world looks like to a foreign three-year-old without seeming to try too hard.
The other feeling of quickness in the novel, for me, was that the scope seems much bigger than the premise suggests. The tale spans more than 20 years, and stretches far and wide around the world. Although Benji, Pinkerton and Kate make up the central trio of the novel, the characters that become part of Benji’s odyssey are almost equally as well-developed. They give the book a feeling of being much more of an epic tale, a family saga as well as a coming-of-age novel. At the same time, you never spend too long at any age or in any place, so the pace really clips along.
The small problems I have with the book are also a pair. First, there’s this plot turn in the middle of the novel (that I won’t detail for the sake of spoilers) that I’m not sure I agree with. It twists the book around in a way that felt, to me, a bit unecessary. But that’s really all I can say about that… Second, I just don’t know if this is going to be one of those novels that sticks with me. I’ve thought about it once in awhile since I finished, but it’s not one that I feel very strongly about. It was a good book, but it, for me, didn’t quite have that spark to make it great.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!