Friday, July 6, 2012

In the Time of the Butterflies--Review

There was no need for me to read another book for the Dominican Republic.  I was on vacation, however, when I finished "The Long Song", my book for Jamaica, and since I needed another book, I decided that it would be interesting to get another perspective on the Trujillo regime. I had certainly heard of Julia Alvarez. Her book, "In the Time of the Butterflies", is required reading for all members the in-coming 9th graders for at least one high school in Fairfax County, which I discovered while researching schools for my kids while we were living overseas. I knew that it was unlikely that any other book would measure up to "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao", and I thought a novelization of the lives of the Mirabal sisters might prove illuminating.

The Mirabal sisters were freedom fighters during the Trujillo regime, and are lionized practically to sainthood in their native land. Only one of the four sisters survived; the other three were found dead in their car at the bottom of a cliff. It was Alvarez's stated attention to bring these women back from the hazy realm of quasi-sainthood, to reveal their personalities and to explain the times in which they lived.

I've just got to stop reading these books where the author has an open agenda, for they have ended up disappointing me time and time again. This book, with so laudable a motive, ending up being not quite right on so many levels; it really exposes the weaknesses of historical fiction (a genre which I love) and made me wonder why Alvarez wrote the book in the first place. Yeah, it was popular, yeah it was a movie, blah, blah, blah. It's funny--I finished both Alvarez's and Diaz's books within an hour of each other and the latter, which did not purport to tell the story of any exact truth, ended up being far more illuminating about the history of the Dominican Republic, and indeed about life in general, that Alvarez's self-conscious dissection of the lives of people who actually existed.

The beginning started out quite promising. A reporter, born in the Dominican Republic, but raised in the United States, seeks out the remaining sister and asked her for perspective on her famous siblings. The reporter (obviously Alvarez herself) has been gone too long from a land that she doesn't really belong to any more; her Spanish is rusty and antiquated; her grasp of local mores awkward and uncertain. I really wish that Alvarez had stuck to this premise for the entire novel; it could have been quite revealing to have the events of the story narrated by Dede, who backed away from heroic actions, and Alvarez the character, who wants the truth but isn't quite sure what it is, or how to go about it. But no! Alvarez the writer is determined to have no ambiguity in her portrait of the Mirabals and their times.

Alvarez lets each sister tell her story, using prose that isn't terrible, but is in no way distinguished, and often heavy-handed. Maria Teresa, the youngest, even tells her story via diary with cutsie little drawing. Unfortunately, it is really beyond her skill to shade any of the sisters with complexity. There's the brave feisty rebel, the dutiful religious wife and mother, and the naive baby of the family.- etc. etc. Are there any surprises here? I confess that Maria especially got on my nerves--her voice never changed in her diaries from the time she was a little girl to when she was a grown woman with children--quite a feat, if you ask me. In Alvarez's quest to bring the sisters to life, to make them easy to understand, she turns them into caricatures. Worse yet, ever time she breaks into another person's perspective, there is a severe loss of momentum. She even breaks up the flow, quite clumsily in my opinion, towards the very end of the novel, when in spite of myself I was turning the pages with interest. Faah.

Worse yet, Alvarez never really makes the reader understand why Trujillo found the Mirabal sisters so nettlesome. Were they really effective rebel leaders? Were they rather amateur-hour symbols that the dictator found an irritating symbol? Did they kill anyone? Alvarez fails in the moral courage to show these women as killers, if indeed  that is what they were. Oh, we get Maria's so sweet pictures of homemade bombs--just look at these teensy little nipples on the caps, girls! We just have to be careful! Everything is overlaid with a gooey domesticity that I find utterly inexcusable.

To make matters worse, Alvarez confesses in her epilogue that she was unable to come to grips with what the true personalities of the Mirabals, so she just made things up to her own satisfaction. (I'm thinking that Dede, who ended up writing her own book shortly thereafter, wasn't exactly cooperating with Ms. Alvarez.) So it isn't the truth,  but just Alvarez's depiction of what Patria, Maria Theresa, and Minerva might have been like. In that case, it would have been better, since the Mirabals of  fact or even legend were inaccessible to her, and that, for some reason, adequate biographical information was unavailable to her (whatever that means) for Alvarez to have abandoned her original project and written about completely fictional characters. The Mirabals deserved better. I can see why this book is popular reading for high school students. Simplistic in characters and themes, it makes revolution go down easy.


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