Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: Angela Davis Gardner's BUTTERFLY'S CHILD

Very few people can have watched the tragic end of the famed opera, Madama Butterfly, without wondering what happened to the little boy she loved and hoped to protect through her own suicide, placing him in the care of his American father, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Angela Davis-Gardner’s Butterfly’s Child offers one possible glimpse of Benji Pinkerton’s future in a novel that certainly captures the raw emotion of Puccini’s masterwork. The novel is beautifully written, and the story is compelling, but it also left me oddly deflated, without the hope that infuses the opera it’s based on*.

Imagine what life would be like for Benji in rural Illinois at the turn of the last century. Frank and Kate Pinkerton tell everyone they’ve selflessly adopted a “heathen” child, although it’s clear to anyone who bothers to look that Benji can’t be pure Japanese. The newly married Kate is devastated to learn of her husband’s liaison with Butterfly, and struggles to give Frank an American family of their own. Benji finds love from his grandmother, Mrs. Pinkerton, and the local veterinarian, Dr. Keast, and he grows up a motivated and intelligent young man, determined to find his mother’s family in Japan. But Davis-Gardner takes Pinkerton down a far darker road than the one I’d imagined, turning what was a callow fellow in the opera into a truly cruel one in the novel. As his web of lies unravels, it’s clear they’ve turned him into a worse father than he was a husband – poor Butterfly sadly bet wrong on his character:

Rage boiled up in him. He imagined lashing Benji with a cat-o’-nine-tails, wrapping it around his neck, and tearing off that suffragist’s clothes and making her march through town naked. In the saloon, men would take turns with her. Aimee Moore too – she was in on this. pg. 221
This book contains a couple of huge plot twists that I don’t want to give away because they are central to the novel. But in the end I can say that one of those twists unfortunately rang hollow to me – specifically, the one that involved the US diplomat Sharpless, who had grown fond of Butterfly and sought a way to revenge her death. “Really?” I couldn’t help wondering aloud. I am not sure how exactly to walk the literary line between “life” and “art” in this kind of a novel, and I am looking forward to hearing others’ opinions on this plot line.

I love novels with multicultural themes, and this one does a great job of dealing with race from many perspectives, without much sentimentality or anachronism. I also love opera, and I enjoyed Davis-Gardner’s reexamination of Puccini’s characterizations. There is a lot to like in this novel, but in the end I didn’t find it as satisfying a “next act” as I had hoped. But maybe my own thoughts on the opera made that inevitable.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

In 140 characters or less: Angela Davis-Gardner’s emotional look at the consequences of Madama Butterfly’s final, desperate act of love.

*Yeah, I know it sounds weird to call an opera that ends with a woman plunging a knife into her chest “hopeful,” but in the sense that she is taking a leap of faith in her “husband” Pinkerton, I’ve always seen it that way.