When tackling this whole "off the shelf" challenge I have consigned myself to this year, I've been judging books by their page length, which, in my reading world, translates to how long it'll take me to get through it. In the Time of the Butterflies, from start to finish, clocks in at 324 pages. That's about three hours for me -- so maybe a day and a half in baby time. But GOOD GRIEF this book took me forever to read because I just couldn't get into it.
While I have no doubt it's an important novel -- the weight of the language, the heavy-handed metaphors and sentences dripping with meaning, tells me as much -- and the history that forms its central plot, the murder of the Mirabel sisters in the Dominican by the ruthless dictator Trujillo, is actually really fascinating. But the book does not, in my mind, "[make] a haunting statement about the human cost of political oppression."
In a way, this is women's history. The novel centres around the 4 sisters and their daily lives -- their marriages, the birth of their children, and it's a domestic novel for the most part. And all the while, the four sisters are charging forward with a revolution. I just wish there was more revolution in the book and less meandering. I wanted to know more about the revolution and less about ribbons. I know that's probably quite sexist of me, that the fact that these were women revolutionaries challenging the male-established dictatorship means the novel should necessarily include discussions of the domestic, but it slowed down the action to a crawl. And by telling the story from all four of the sisters' points of view, Alvarez manages to disjoint the narrative so completely that you only get a fraction of each of their lives. Personally, I would have preferred the novel centre around Mirabel, the most dynamic and active of the four sisters. But, I didn't write this book.
First published in 1994, I think this book suffers a little from the trappings of the time -- long-winded and overly descriptive, I'm reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes to see The English Patient (let me just state, for the record, that I loved both the book and the film), rolling her eyes the entire time in boredom. At least I think that's what happened -- I think that might be the only episode of Seinfeld that I've actually seen from start to finish. Annnywaay, she just doesn't get what the big deal is, and I feel that way about this novel. It's a national bestseller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and blah de blah, accolades and great blurbs. Yet the book failed to keep my interest and over and over again I found myself not wanting to finish. It was written at a time when long, flowery sentences and the cult of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was going strong. And the importance of the novel, the politics, the very real struggle, the incredibly tragic murder of these four women, gets lost within the precious nature of the prose, the inevitable storytelling that never seems to actually tell a story but circle around it, planting pretty flowery sentences along the way.
Overall, I was disappointed, and found myself just wanted to get to the end, to see how they die -- and then, of course, it all happens off stage, which made me furious. They died violently, brutally, unnecessarily, and Alvarez should have had the bravery to write it. Instead, the book simply stops and then switches perspective again, heads back into its dreary narrative and tries to cover it up by describing their dead bodies as the remaining sister, Dede, identifies them. There's no power to this narrative; the power is in the truth of the events themselves, and Alvarez coasts along because of it. I know it's harsh but, again, books should stand the test of time, prose shouldn't feel dated, and a story of such importance should actually read that way, and not hold itself up on some bronzed pedestal.
READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, and Around the World in 52 Books. Alvarez was born in the Dominican, and I usually really love Caribbean literature, but not so much in this case.