Angela 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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