Plum, almost fourteen, wants something – something more. She is full of anger and desire, seeing the world only through the lens of her own experience. Her world is small, home and school. She expects her parents and two older brothers to always be there but doesn’t think, at all, of their own needs. Plum has friends at school who she doesn’t like, but she wants friendship and she wants them to like her. A chance encounter with her thirty-something sophisticated neighbor brings about more dramatic changes than Plum can imagine.
“Plum is soon to turn fourteen, and one evening she stands in front of a mirror with her school dress around her ankles, her body reflected naked and distressing in the glass.”
That first sentence captures Plum, and also captures the reader, as the reader will be forced to see people, see themselves, without illusions, their deepest desires and wants and hurts and actions exposed. The truth can be distressing.
Plum wants. She wants her friends to like her, she wants to be thinner, she wants to be prettier, she wants to be the most important person to her brother Justin because he is her most important person to her, and she wants a miniature television set for her birthday. She is a bundle of want and longing and doesn’t even realize just how desperate she is. She doesn’t know how to achieve or change, she just knows the hunger.
Maureen, her next door neighbor, is in her mid thirties with a son who just turned four and a husband who is always at work. Maureen at first seems the answer to Plum’s unspoken prayer, someone who will take an interest, who will reassure, who will like Plum. Someone who will help her; as the copy on the back of my ARC says, “Her beautiful neighbor Maureen will show her how she might fly.”
That all is not right with this seemingly glamorous woman (“Mrs. Wilks is quite a beautiful woman, in an Ali McGraw, midday-movie kind of way”) is hinted at from the start: no friends have been invited to her son David’s birthday party. Plum is angry at her parents and Maureen responds by saying “my family used to make me so angry that I dreamed about burning the house down, with them inside it.” Her counsel to Plum is to take on the odd name Aria and to stop eating her lunch to lose weight. Further revelations about Maureen should come as no surprise to Plum, or to the reader, yet it is perhaps an indication of the goodness in Plum, in ourselves, that we don’t fully appreciate the darkness within Maureen and just how far she is willing to go to get what she wants. The lessons Maureen teaches Plum (either deliberately or accidentally) will come back to haunt Maureen. At first, though, there is just Plum being appreciated and known by Maureen: “The whole world is joined, like a dot-to-dot, by someone knowing somebody else’s name. Her inclusion in this intricate web fills Plum with a warm sense of humanity’s oneness. The night is beautiful, the world is beautiful, and for all her imperfections Plum is included and wanted. For a moment, she is happier than she’s ever been.”
Justin, Plum’s adored older brother, gives her friends the giggles with his cuteness. Stepping outside the book, outside the gaze of young teens, a reader may wonder at a man in his midtwenties who lives at home with his parents and has a bit of a dead-end job (if my interpretation of Australian references is correct.) I, too, was swept away by Plum’s view of Justin; impressed by how much her older brothers, Justin and Cydar, loved their prickly sister. Justin is “rangy as a tall ship, handsome as a prince’s portrait, a power of aliveness radiates from Justin the way light beams away from the stars. To Plum he is without flaw, a kind of sun-king.” It’s only now that I see Justin as a handsome boy, not a man, a golden child who is swept into life and always will land on his feet because he is lucky and good-looking.
Without giving too much away, Plum discovers a secret about Justin that upsets not just her world, but her world view, and she acts to protect it in a way that may have unintended consequences, hurt that goes beyond what she intends. She exercises the power that she has, the power that she has learned, the power of words.
Plum and Maureen and Justin – these aren’t people I want to spend time with; this isn’t one of those books where I think, “oh, I want to live here, or at least visit.” Instead, I recognize them – recognize them as people I do know. Recognize me. Some people, friends, family, loved ones, bring out the best in us; some bring out the worst. Books, also, can show us at our best and our worst. Butterfly shows us the worst. Not “worst” in terms of evil, but worst in terms of those things a person may not want to admit to. Hidden desires and torments and needs that are dark and dangerous and selfish. The attraction of manipulation, of lies, of power.
Are we more than the darkness in us? One brother’s actions seem to indicate that yes, we are. But Butterfly is primarily about Plum, Plum on the threshold between child and teenager, a time period in a person’s life that is about not knowing oneself, and trying to figure it out. A time that can be darker than people remember or want to remember. Plum, wanting friendships yet hating her friends, thinking that by controlling/manipulating she can get what she wants, is so vivid and real and that last sentence from Plum (“The world is such a sad kind of place that she is forced to groan“) just gets me.
This is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read all year. I put post its on page after page, to mark either beautiful language or an apt description. I may not want to live with these people, but I want to live with this book, to revisit, to read and reread and be impressed with how much is told, from page one, about where everyone will end up. Each sentence has layers.
Plum, on her family: “It is one thing for Plum to exist on the edge of desolation: but the thought of anyone in her family being anything less than happy fills her head with the noise of an untuned radio. . . . Anyway, it is Plum’s growing conviction that a mother and a father have no right to feelings. A parent should be a person the way a door is a door, something like the robot in Lost in Space – loving and providing and cleaning, not distracted by wishes and needs. The only thing that really matters about a parent is the existence of a child. If Mums and Fa were ever fourteen, they’re well beyond it now; beyond the time when their lives are vital things. Even when they were fourteen, it’s unlikely that they had problems as grievous as Plum’s.” Hartnett captures the self absorption of Plum, and also explains why the reader will not learn much more about Mums and Fa than we were just told. It is Plum’s story, and her brothers, not her parents. It also gives a reason why Plum doesn’t see Maureen, older and a parent, as someone with her own existence and why she will be so surprised and stunned at Maureen’s secret.
Here is another part, on families: “Maureen realizes there’s a hollowness at the core of his family, a fear of discovering what it is that turns inside the hearts of one another – and that they know this failing, and are ashamed.”
I could go on and on, quoting language that is spine-tingling, that reveals character, that shows hints of what is come. What is to come… oh, the end. The final pages. “…one only gets to make a handful of decisions before everything is decided, that every choice fuse a different choice into impossibility. Routes close, options shrivel, and it all happens without fanfare, simply day following day – until, suddenly, life is no longer pliable.” Words at the end of Butterfly that echo Plum’s views at the start that adults are beyond change.
I have tried very, very hard to avoid spoilers here – not because I have anything against spoilers, but because I think some things are best discovered and figured out by a reader. So here’s what we’ll do, if you get to the end and need to talk about it, we can discuss it in the comments. Those who don’t like spoilers? Don’t read them!
What else? Butterfly is set in the 1980s; it’s revealed by little things, a David Bowie poster on the wall, Plum’s desire for white shag carpet, the models of cars people drive, the movies Plum watches. It’s also shown by what is absent: Plum is a movie lover who watches what is on TV, not what is recorded or on a DVD or VHS tape. Friendship dynamics are explored in all their darkness and manipulation, yet with no cell phones or texts or secret photos to tease and torment.
Is this a favorite book read in 2010? Absolutely; even if, ultimately, I disagree with Butterfly. Life is always pliable, we can always change, and we always have options. It’s just the possibilities of life at 24, at 34, at 44, are different those of a fourteen year old.