Monday, August 1, 2011

Reading List: Butterfly's Child

The opera is Cio-Cio-San's. I for one don't care what happens to [insert choice epithet] Pinkerton. But there remains the boy: "Tu, tu, piccolo iddio!" The jacket of Angela Davis-Gardner's novel, Butterfly's Child, promises to answer the niggling question of what happened next. The synopsis of the opera given at the front of the book indicates that it's not just intended for enthusiasts. The enthusiastic blurbs by other novelists promised that it was a page-turner, and this I certainly found it to be. A central thread of it is also a Bildungsroman trajectory for Benji, Butterfly's son, taken to live with Pinkerton and Kate. But the relationship of the novel to the opera is not as straightforward as it seems at first.

The sections of the novel which I found most successfully realized were those concerning Benji's early childhood. I thought Davis-Gardner traced his process of coming to terms with his environment sensitively and with a vital touch of humor. And she does paint the environment, the American Midwest in the early twentieth century, very well; I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the weather, the changing seasons, the flora and fauna of Pinkerton's Illinois farm. The protagonists and antagonists in the drama of Benji's acceptance in the community are divided more clearly into camps than seems perfectly natural, but the characters are deftly drawn. Nor is Benji the only protagonist. In addition to a schoolteacher, a veterinarian, and Pinkerton's rather formidable mother, we have Pinkerton (who goes by Frank in the novel) and Kate themselves. In brief: Pinkerton is a sorry specimen, and long-suffering Kate is sympathetic, but I thought they were the most complex characters in the book. The eternal question of "Just how terrible a person is Pinkerton?" is brought up for consideration. And Kate, for whom I rooted staunchly, is a fascinating creature: deeply religious, very sensitive, and fiercely intelligent.

Contrary, I fear, to the author's intentions, I was very sorry to leave the Pinkerton farm behind when Benji inevitably struck out to find a guide to his past and future in Japan. Maybe the evocation of Nagasaki's sights and smells, its harbor and noodle shops, flowering trees and tiled roofs, would be more gripping to me if I had visited Japan, and had some sense of the original.  Also--and this might be my chief critique of the novel--I began to suffer from having my sympathies so often called on. Does everyone have to have a tortured past? Ill-fated love affairs? Hardship of weather and economic circumstances? I'm not saying that it's unrealistic; but as a reader, I would have appreciated a more selective emphasis. The ways in which Puccini's opera becomes entwined with the novel as a work of art, as well as its "understood" premise, are fascinating, but affect the denouement too strongly to be discussed in detail. Handling Puccini in this double sense is of course tricky. I thought it was handled well, but I found it more intriguing than satisfying, due more to my feelings about the opera than about the prose. Should you read this book? To write such a work inevitably invites comparisons with the superb artistry and sheer emotional wallop of Puccini's opera; equally inevitably, it suffers by the comparison. Still, it makes a good read for the weekend or the beach.


  1. Interesting. I, for one, am glad to know that there are other authors who've taken operas and run with them in such a way. If I can get my hands on it, I may have to give this one a read.

  2. @Christie If you're looking for other opera-inspired fiction, I can recommend Paola Capriola's Floria Tosca. It's revisionist in its treatment of the relationships shared by the three central characters, and more than a little disturbing, but an intriguing philosophical exercise, in fine and sensual prose.

  3. Reading the reviews on Amazon for that, I think I can safely say that I would be forever traumatized. And yet, I am deeply curious. Have you read it?

  4. @Christie I have read it. I agree with the reviewers: the prose is evocative, elegant, and erotic. As I've always loved Puccini and Cavaradossi, Capriolo's refocusing and reinterpretation of the drama messed with my head (and my sensibilities were a bit shocked) but it was well done.

  5. I just looked up Floria on Amazon and I am intrigued. Usually I am not eager to read the novels of the 'opera fan fiction' kind, but this looks different. "Killing the melodrama of Tosca", "removing the blurry tears", "Nietzsche and Freud"... yes. Plus, the English-language publisher is the legendary Serpent's Tail (Elfriede Jelinek's anglo-publisher, too). This is a definite must-get-my-hands-on.

    Is there any explicit sex, I wonder? I can see Scarpia hiring prostitutes on his Tosca-obsessed nights without any problem.

  6. Dio mio, now I want to read La Spettatrice and her other books. La Spettatrice reverses the diva worships into a performer's obsession with his ideal, omni-scient, unconditionally loving spectator.

  7. @DTO It's been about two years since I read Floria so not sure about the explicit sex thing. If I recall correctly, there are no prostitutes; Capriola emphasizes Scarpia's repression/hypocrisy, where he views his own (S&M) desires as sinful, Tosca as sinful for inspiring them, yet also worships her as the diva/Madonna. Critique of dominant social structures/ideologies which facilitate this.

    La Spettatrice sounds fascinating; I'll see if I can hunt down a translation (and hope for a DTO review. My Italian isn't up to easy novel-reading.)

  8. Yes, according to Amazon, The Woman Watching is available with a few obscure books purveyors in the US for very little money. A mission ahead.


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