Review: In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Note: Already posted on Revish – but until Revish goes public, I’m going to cross post my reviews here.

When my book group chose In the Time of the Butterflies for our January book I was not pleased. I didn’t want to read a fictional account of revolutionaries, especially knowing how it would end. I felt I needed a light and uplifting book during the dark days of winter, rather than a book that told of life under a brutal dictator. I gave in, however, and checked the book (and tapes) out of the local public library. While I didn’t find In the Time of the Butterflies a light read, it was, in its own way, uplifting.

It took me longer than the allotted time to read this book; I even cheated by listening to the book on tape during long drives or while doing chores in the kitchen interspersed with reading the book during wrestling matches or before bed at night. I cannot say I ever really got into the book until the last 100 pages or so.

The book begins as Dedé, the only remaining Mirabal sister, readies herself to meet yet another interviewer intent on knowing about the Butterflies thirty-four years after their deaths. Dedés thoughts begin at what she considers year zero, and the book takes off from there, each of the sisters voices contributing to the lyrical narrative: Minerva, the beautiful rebellious one, Patria, the religious one, Maria Theresa, the baby, and Dedé, the one who survived. Each sister tells part of the story of their introduction into the ways of revolutionaries and their life in prison and under home arrest.

As a postscript to the book the author, Julia Alvarez, tells of her own family’s flight from the Dominican Republic and her fascination with the Mirabal sisters. She explains her reasons for writing the book and emphasizes it is a fictionalized account of the lives of these sisters. I wish this had been a forward instead of a postscript. As I read the book I thought it was, more or less, a biography, and discovering that it was a work of fiction made it fall a little flat for me. However, the list of people to whom Ms Alvarez spoke is impressive, and lends more credibility to the story than she gives herself credit for.

I ended up liking the book more than I’d expected I would. I learned a number of things about the time and place in history. For example, it was interesting to note that the revolutionaries in the book were jubilant when Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba. It didn’t surprise me, once I thought about it, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Despite Ms Alvarez’s wish that this book “…will bring acquaintance of [the Mirabal] sisters to English-speaking readers…” I think that some pre-knowledge of the time in history would have been beneficial to me. I might have been more willing to spend more time getting to know the protagonists and less time stalling. But then, works of fiction don’t come with prerequisites, do they?

Notes kept during reading:

[January 28, 2007] I didn’t choose to read this book, it was chosen for me by the members of my book group. I probably would not have read it, left to my own volition. I’m not sorry I’m reading it however, it is well written and I’m learning about a piece of world history about which I knew nothing.

Because I decided, late in the game, to read this book, I picked it up along with the taped version. I’m enjoying listening to it more than I’m enjoying reading it because the women who read the book on tape have such delightful voices.

Although our book group discussion has already taken place, I’m planning on finishing this book while awaiting delivery of the next book group book.

[January 28, 2007]
I discovered something interesting last night when I was reading this book. I’d been listening to it on tape and not actually reading it, but last night chose to read in bed (one of my favorite things to do). I couldn’t remember where I’d stopped listening so re-read a number of pages. I enjoyed the story until I got to the part I had not heard on tape – then I grew weary of it. It could have been because I was tired. I hope so. It would suck if I suddenly didn’t like to read anymore!

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