Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Patron Saint of Butterflies

by Cecilia Galante
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by Melissa

I wouldn't expect to be the first to jump up and say "read a book about a couple of girls from a religious commune"; the whole idea weirds me out, and I try to stay away from the whole idea of communities following what invariably ends up being some wacko. But I was engrossed by this book. It was a very intense read, at least for me: religious, but not preachy, full of interesting characters and tough questions. I was captivated by the story, torn between horror at the things that the main characters were experiencing and doing, and disbelief that these things would actually be happening. (Yet, all I had to do was tune into the news to realize that they can and do.)

Since the author actually lived in a religious commune until the age of 15, this book could have very easily been a skewed story, one way or the other. I did feel like something was "missing" (I couldn't quite put my finger on it; perhaps it was only my skewed journalistic desire for the "truth"), but I did think she balanced the views of the two characters quite well through the dual narrative. I think it was absolutely necessary that the story be told through both Honey's and Agnes's point of view, and Galante manages it extremely well. I got a full sense of what each girl was like, and Galante managed to take each one on a separate (yet parallel) journey that complemented one another. Because of this, the reader gets a fuller picture of the overarching plot, and it added a unique depth to the story.

Of the two characters, weird as it sounds, I liked Agnes better. Perhaps its because, like her, I'm a believer in religion (though not necessarily a commune...). I found that while I felt some of Agnes's beliefs were warped and weird, . I could still sense Agnes's faith in them, and understand why she believes that way. I understood her fears about leaving the only life she's known. And I thought Agnes's journey was probably more profound than Honey's; she not only had to realize that what was going on in the compound was damaging, she had to come to terms with the implication of that realization. Her foundation of her religious belief system was shattered, and Galante described Agnes's doubt and pain quite well.

Honey, on the other hand, was always dismissive of the community -- she'd been an outsider since the beginning, being born to a single mother, who left soon after Honey's birth -- and so her journey was a bit different. Her voice was more angry, more grating, but even so, I admired her strength and ability to stand against the force of the community. I admired her determination to do what needed to be done, no matter the personal cost, and to stand up and take responsibility. She was obviously the more mature of the two characters, so her journey didn't need to be as life-changing. Still, without Honey, Agnes would have never gone on hers, so Honey was crucial to the plot and the characterization of Agnes.

But, the main reason for reading this isn't the good plot or the balanced storytelling, or even the compelling characters (though those are all good reasons). It's because it's a great story, about love and family and friendship and finding oneself even when all seems lost. What more could a person ask for out of a book?

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