Marcia Preston herself describes this book as 'a story about the power of enduring love and the infinite possibilities we are given for redemption'.
Although I was gripped by the book - it is undoubtedly a compelling story about love - for much of the book it seems to be more about the destructive power of love. Yes, there is a kind of redemption at the end (don't worry, I'm not going to include any spoilers) but I still had the feeling that love had done little to make the lives of any of the participants any better.
The story is set in rural Oklahoma and told in the first person narrative by Roberta Lee, better known as Bobbie. Through her words, we learn about the four way relationship that is central to the book: Bobbie is the daughter of Ruth and becomes friends with Cincy who is the daughter of Lenora. Love, or its lack, is the driving force behind the story and leads to imprisonment, death, separation and emotional and mental breakdown. Not a rom-com then.
The narrative covers a 20 year period from 1971 and the book starts in 1990. Bobbie is now married and newly and unhappily pregnant. The arrival of a stranger at her home is the catalyst that leads her to look back on the key events of her early life and also projects us into the weeks that follow the stranger's visit. The story grips from the first pages; Bobbie's response to the stranger tells us much about her state of mind but not why she should feel so disturbed by his presence.
In the past, we hear how Bobbie, living miserably with her alcoholic mother, finds love and sanctuary in the home of her friend, Cincy - the butterfly house of the title. But love is almost inevitably the soil where the seeds of jealousy will flourish and the relationships become tarnished. That leads to life-changing actions, some of which are told in the past, some of which we find out in the present strands of the narrative.
The butterflies of the title are literal - Cincy's mother is a research scientist and keeps butterflies in her home - but also metaphorical. Marcia Preston describes in such beautiful detail the life cycle of the butterflies that I cannot believe we are not expected to find meaning in the process of caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Including the cocoons that never give life but turn into little coffins for the dead creature inside.
The fractured narrative is layered; we read about the past, then the past and the present are overlaid and finally there is a sense of the past catching up with the present (literally and metaphorically) as the story in the present takes over. Each of the layers not only allows us, detective style, to piece together the clues to make sense of the present, but also encourage us to consider different kinds of love. Ultimately, none of them is perfect.
Any book written in the first person narrative is an intimate book. But this is more than intimacy. It has an intensity that surely reflects the narrow world of rural America. The four lead female characters are clearly delineated; as far as is possible with a first person narrative, we have an understanding of their complexities as people. But the two main male characters are virtual ciphers and anyone else in the book is on the periphery; even a boyfriend who commits an heroic act to save a life has barely any characterisation. The spotlight throughout is on the four women and how their actions affect each other and those around them.
There are light moments. Some of the early descriptions of Bobbie's and Cincy's childhood are almost Huckleberry Finn-ish. This is a rural town where children made their own entertainment and had few options for friendship. Marcia Preston writes beautifully about butterflies; she spent seven years researching the book and the detail is extraordinary. And the inclusion of Aunt Olivia half way through the book is a comic as well as a pivotal moment.
The writing has a simple elegance that means, despite the depth of the issues explored, it is never difficult to understand.
The detective story that leads to redemption has twists and turns that allow the reader gradually to work out what the characters are discovering themselves. There is no Poirot moment where everything becomes clear and it is all the better for that.
To summarise, this is not a cheerful book although, towards the end, it is optimistic. But it is gripping and very real and I would recommend it highly.
" Four Women
A Lifetime Of Secrets
One Moment That Binds Them Together Forever. "
Roberta Lee hasn't the best childhood. At three years old she was taken, by her mother Ruth, from her father and the rest of her family in the middle of the night. Now thousands of miles away, her alcoholic Mother is neglectful and life is lonely and devoid of love. That is until she meets Cynthia, a girl in her class at school, and her mother Lenora.
Despite also being brought up without her Father, Cynthia's life couldn't be more different. Lenora is a loving and caring mother who extends her maternal feelings to include Roberta. However as the bonds between Lenora and Roberta strengthen, other people around them grow suspicious and jealous. In an alcoholic rage, Ruth, discloses a secret she has being keeping close to her heart for many years. And so starts a chain of events which will change and affect all four women's lives.
The story begins in 1990, 15 years after the catastrophic events, and with Roberta now a married woman in her thirties. She is visited by a stranger, who seems to know more than he should and is asking Roberta to tell the truth about what happened all those years ago, thus freeing Lenora from prison and absolving her of murder. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away here, as this happens in the first few pages. It was an intriguing start to the story for me. By giving me a glimpse of the end of the story, the author had me hooked and desperate to find out what had unfolded all those years ago. Right from the very beginning I was second guessing where the story was going to go, and I rarely got it right at all.
The whole story is told in a first person narrative from Roberta with frequent flashbacks to the 1970's. This was done in such a brilliant way that it was very easy to connect with both the very young, and older Roberta. There's not an awful lot of dialogue, and most of the story comes from Roberta's thoughts and observations. I felt the writing of her feelings really set the scene and brought the story to life and with unfussy and tangible descriptions I could become part of the story myself.
It was easy to understand Roberta's loneliness and need to embrace Cynthia and Lenora as a family. For most of the book Ruth is little more than an oppressive shadow, who we know little about. This led to both the characters in the book and me as a reader to underestimate her. Her secret when it's revealed and consequent actions are all the more dark and shocking for it. At the same time, while along with Roberta, I could relish the warm and maternal feelings from Lenora, I could feel a slight sinister undercurrent there which developed slowly. Teenage Roberta begins to become confused about her feelings to Lenora. I felt that Lenora knew and manipulated this for her own personal gain, as her relationship with her own daughter begins to fall apart. The butterfly reference in the title comes from Lenora and Roberta's shared passion for breeding and researching the butterfly's, and a metaphor for the freedom Roberta finds in her house.
I found both the stories in both time-scales intriguing and tense, although I did prefer reading from the younger Roberta and found that story the most gripping. The author swaps between the two regularly, so each is revealed at the same pace and eventually connect together. For the most part I found this was achieved very well, the reader is informed when a switch in time is made by the date. However sometimes I found that I'd become so engrossed in the earlier events, which at times could run on for 4-5 chapters, that it took me a while to reconnect with the later story when it appeared. I wasn't keen on how this switch could take place mid chapter also, I found it a little odd after reading a few chapters in one period to suddenly mid page find myself in another. I think I would have rather had the periods defined by chapters. However this wasn't a huge issue, and didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book, more a little niggle I had than anything else.
The characters and story are completely believable. I found there to be a real human edge to the story, as in none of the people were perfect, and despite her spite and neglect I was even able to find some sympathy and compassion for Ruth. There is one area which seemed a little far fetched, in a police investigation into murder I feel something was seriously over looked which wouldn't be in real life. This did frustrate me a little, although as the rest of the story flowed I was able to forgive it as this omission certainly enhanced the story rather than spoil it.
As I described above, the book begins with what would seem to be the almost conclusion of the book, meaning I'd long made up my mind how it would end. This turned out to be a stroke of genius from the author, as the story continued on after this and developed into a touching and moving period of it's own. The final few chapters where the most beautifully written, and I was finally able to understand the other characters around Roberta.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The relationships between the four women were complex, intriguing, touching and real. The tension throughout the book was well maintained, keeping me gripped throughout. I loved how I was tricked into believing I knew the ending, only to be completely surprised. At just over 300 pages, this isn't a long or tedious read, a lot happens within those pages in punchy, direct yet moving text, meaning I flew through the book in no time. I would recommend this book and will be looking out for more of Marcia Preston's work in the future.
~ Other Information ~
The Butterfly House by Marcia Preston
My copy was published in 2006 by Mira Books