A Year in Reading: Jennifer Egan

December 1, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 1

coverAngela Davis-Gardner’s Butterfly’s Child was my surprise book crush of 2011. I say “surprise” because the title did not attract me, and I put off reading it. But I found the novel immediately riveting — to the point that it often eclipsed a family vacation to Ireland last August. “Butterfly” is the protagonist of Puccini’s famous opera, whose mixed-race son, Benji, Davis-Gardner follows to America, along with his father, Pinkerton, and Pinkerton’s new wife. In exploring Benji’s struggles to define himself, racially and culturally, against a relatively homogeneous late 19th-century American landscape, Davis-Gardner also renders up a stringent, poignant account of Midwestern farm life — particularly the burdens and hardships it placed upon women. But Davis-Gardner’s plans are more elaborate and subversive than that a mere reimagining of a tangent of Butterfly’s story; the novel is finally an ingenious study of the dangers and distortions inherent in mythmaking. Butterfly’s Child is a shimmering performance, revealing itself as gradually and seductively as the geishas whose secretive subculture Davis-Gardner authoritatively renders. I found myself talking about the novel obsessively with my husband, who hadn’t even read it, which makes me think it would be an excellent choice for book clubs. Bottom line: this tour de force deserved many more readers than it found last spring, and I’m hopeful that they’ll embrace it in spring 2012, when it comes out in paperback.

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is the author of The Invisible Circus, which was released as a feature film by Fine Line in 2001, Emerald City and Other Stories, Look at Me, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2001, and the bestselling The Keep. Her new book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, a national bestseller, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize.  Also a journalist, she writes frequently in the New York Times Magazine.

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