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Review: ‘The Butterfly’s Kingdom’

The Butterfly's KingdomThe Butterfly’s Kingdom by Gwendolyn Geer Field

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gwendolyn Greer Field has woven together the lives of the career-oriented Elizabeth Bishop and her old friend Annie into a compelling and complex psychological and spiritual coming of age story. Bishop, who plans to leave her increasingly empty high-profile New York City job visits Annie in a small town because Annie’s life is falling apart and she needs help.

Annie’s husband Arthur committed suicide a year earlier, plunging what had appeared to be a perfect home into a world of secrets and doubt. Annie’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Betsy—who was Arthur’s favorite—blames Annie for the family’s ills. Her eight-year-old brother, Sam, who was ignored by Arthur, is less overt about his feelings.

Without realizing it, Elizabeth steps into a minefield of doubts, secrets and mysterious undercurrents, many of which cannot seem to be openly discussed. The cast of characters also includes Arthur’s former best friend Jackson, whom Annie despises for reasons she will not say, and Luke, Elizabeth’s high-school boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen or heard from in years.

“The Butterfly’s Kingdom” focuses primarily on the multiple conversations between these characters as they try to understand each other and their complicated relationships. Elizabeth, who went to Annie’s side as a rescuer not only has to come to terms with who her old friend has become, but with the fact that she herself also needs to be rescued from whatever sent her away to New York in the first place.

Field allows her characters the time and space to get to know each other and discover where their lacks of trust begin and end. While the conversations are therapeutic and demonstrate that all of those involved need to confide and trust each other more than they do, they also show that a temporal solution isn’t going to fix all the discordant lives.

“The Butterfly’s Kingdom” is also about spiritual journeys. While the spirituality has a clear Christian focus, it should resonate well with readers from many faiths.

This beautifully imagined book has a pervasive editorial flaw. The characters’ conversations all follow the same pattern: When one character makes a pithy and revealing statement about another, the statement is followed by “you’re not mad at me for saying this, are you?” or by “do you know what I mean?” This device for transitioning from the pronouncement back into give-and-take dialogue is overused throughout the book and tends to blur the characters’ personalities because they all do the same thing.

Nonetheless, this book of mysteries and secrets provides a thoughtful plot, issues that many readers may be experiencing in their own lives, and beautiful spiritual images and analogies en route to a satisfying conclusion.

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