SIL Book Review: The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

How Excited Was I to Read This? 6/10- I’ll be honest, I purchased this because the title sounded interesting and it was on sale for $1.99 on Kindle. The description of the book left me with mixed feelings. Sometimes books about religious zealots can come across as overly dismissive of religion. Other times the focus can be too heavy handed on why an alternative, “orthodox” view is more important. Only a few books that I’ve read have toed the line and really humanized the characters aside from the commune.

How Excited Am I Now? 9/10- I started this book (302 pages) and finished three and a half hours later. I couldn’t put it down even for 5 minutes. Galante’s writing is easy and enjoyable. Although her characters and the story line are slightly predictable (especially by the end), I didn’t care, I just wanted it to end the way I was hoping and then be more.

Book Rating: 9

Book Jacket: Anges and Honey have always been best friends but they haven’t always been so different. Agnes loves being a Believer. She knows the rules at the Mount Blessing religious commune are there to make her a better person. Honey hates Mount Blessing and the control Emmanuel, their leader, has over her life. The only bright spot is the butterfly garden she’s helping to built, and the journal of butterflies that she keeps. When Agnes’s grandmother makes an unexpected visit to the commune, she discovers a violent secret that the Believers are desperate to keep quiet. And when Agnes’s little brother is seriously injured and Emmanuel refuses to send him to a hospital, Nana Pete take the three children and escapes the commune. Their journey begins an exploration of faith, friendship, religion, and family for the two girls, as Agnes clings to her familiar faith while Honey desperately wants a new future.

Review: Go get this book right now. I’ll wait….This is the debut novel for Galante, but I never would have guessed it. The story revolves around the relationship of Agnes and Honey. The chapters alternate perspective. At first I was concerned that it would be tiresome to have the same events narrated twice, but, after the first chapter, the narration style really moves the plot along. Honey and Agnes come across as rather two-dimensional (but then I don’t expect much emotional depth for 14-year olds). Honey is rebellious and Agnes puritanical. Over the course of the book (as one might expect) the relationship and their personalities evolve into very solid  characters. I felt connected to each in very different ways and reading the moments in which they emerged from their cocoons were beautiful.

What I enjoyed most, however, were the side characters. Honey’s surrogate/housemate Winky is unexpectedly the person I wanted to read more about. He doesn’t say a lot, but there’s a genuine quality that is making me slightly teary-eyed at the moment. Likewise, Agnes’s grandmother and brother, Benny, provide the loving, quiet voice stabilizing the girls on coming to terms with what it means to be family and what it means to be “saintlike.”

The plot isn’t novel, but Galante does it service. Within the first two or three chapters it becomes obvious (even if you didn’t read the book jacket), that Nana Pete is going to kidnap the kids, Honey is going to be overjoyed (but scared because her status as an orphan leaves her vulnerable outside of the commune). Agnes is going to be reluctant. Both girls have their own questions about faith and doubt, but Galante’s tender treatment of these questions really shows how seriously she takes this. Shockingly, butterflies don’t play as big a place in the story as I anticipated, although I loved how they were subtlety placed throughout the work.

Sister-Factor: 7- The relationship between Honey and Agnes exceeds that of best friends. Even when they are upset with each other, they yearn for the other. Beyond their relationship is Agnes’s bond with her younger brother; Honey’s surrogate sisterly relationship with Benny; and the lack of relationship between Agnes’s father and his mysterious sister, Lillian. I’d also stick Honey and Winky in there because that’s a difficult relationship to define.

Re-Readability: 7- It’s a book that I would reread, or at least reread parts of it. I loved that it almost made me cry, but didn’t push me over. That’s a big plus in my book.

Recommended For: Rainy day afternoons, sunny afternoons, I’d probably stay up late reading it too.

If You Liked This Book You Should Also Check Out: The Rapture of Canaan, Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech, author of Love That Dog which I last reviewed here, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, My Antonia, Ender’s Game (this might be more of a stretch, but I see common themes)