I have posted twice before about books by Sonya Hartnett — Surrender and Thursday’s Child — and have mentioned in both cases that their classification as young adult novels seemed somehow odd. Both books had young protagonists, but they were emotionally complex, dark, innovative with language, and satisfying in the way that really good books are, without any sense that they were written with a certain readership in mind.
Butterfly was apparently billed as Hartnett’s first adult novel, but to me it feels both lighter and vaguer than the other two of hers I’ve read. This is not to say that it’s bad — the writing is intelligent, and she has some observations so sharp you’ll cut yourself — but I can’t understand the marketing. If Surrender — wild and frightening and surprising — is young adult and Butterfly — which could just as happily be read by a 13-year-old — is adult, I don’t get it. I can never understand why they put books where they put them in the bookstore, really, but this case just seems particularly egregious to me.
Ariella Coyle, nicknamed Plum, is a 13-year-old living in Australian suburbs in the 1980s. She has indulgent parents and two much-older brothers, Justin and Cydar. Hartnett is wonderful at evoking the never-happiness of this age, how your body feels like it doesn’t fit you, how being larger than you were before is always wrong, the way the heat of the summer seems to go on forever, the way even with a kindly family you’ve got to find something to protest against.
Plum is under no illusions about her place among her friends.
In the early days of their first year here, when they were both lost souls, she and Sophie had found one another, and made each other laugh. For a few months it had been just the two of them, sitting on a bench together eating lunch, saving chairs for one another in class, sleeping the night on each other’s bedroom floor, and Plum had been happy. But then Sophie’s charm had caught the attention of these others, and they had abducted her; Plum had been accepted as part of the deal, like Spam in a raffle-won hamper.
This gang of friends is perfectly drawn, from the ringleader and the princess and the funny girl to the careful sycophants. But Plum turns for attention elsewhere, to her glamorous next-door neighbor Maureen, who gives her advice on beauty and confidence and assures her that she could be a model one day. She even advises Plum to change her nickname, absurdly, to Aria.
This novel would have been stronger if it had focused more tightly on Plum’s story. The point of view wavers: we hear Justin’s thoughts, and Cydar’s, and Maureen’s, each of them analyzing and understanding their situation far more neatly than human beings are usually apt to do. The drama between the adults distracts from Plum’s struggle, on the one hand to understand and manipulate her friends, and on the other hand to resist knowing or understanding anything much about her parents or siblings. When the twist comes, the emotional impact has been muffled a bit by this vagueness.
But only a bit. This is where I can understand this novel as adult: Plum is an odd sort of butterfly. There are no indications that she is growing or developing into a kinder or less self-absorbed sort of person. When she is finally given the power to hurt someone else — something she never had in her group of friends — she uses it to devastating effect. What will emerge from Plum’s cocoon?
While this isn’t my favorite of Hartnett’s books, it’s still well-written, interesting, and well-characterized, with a few moments that stand out in my brain: Cydar’s bungalow full of aquariums, for instance, exotic fish all over the walls; the aftermath of Plum’s birthday party. It also made me think. How many of an author’s weaker works do that for you? Put her on your list and see what you think.