book review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (spoilers)

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PRAISE SONG FOR THE BUTTERFLIES by Bernice L. McFadden
★★☆☆☆
Akashic Books, 2018

 

The ending rarely makes or breaks a book for me. Obviously I’d prefer my endings on the satisfying and hard-hitting side, but if a book is strong enough, I’m not usually going to fault it for a slightly lackluster conclusion. This is why I rarely write reviews with spoiler tags – I don’t have any problem talking about a book in general terms of what worked for me and what didn’t.

Praise Song for the Butterflies is the exception. Because for the most part, I really, really enjoyed this book. The characters were on the thin side and their motivations were at times difficult to discern, but that was my only note in what was otherwise proving to be a captivating story… maybe a bit simply told, but if anything, I thought McFadden’s pared down prose style suited this story which could have easily veered into melodrama with overly flowery writing. And it certainly was every bit as horrifying as it’s meant to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away – granted, it’s short, but I still read the whole thing in two sittings. So all things considered, it was going well.

And then it ended. [SPOILERS] The problem isn’t just the abysmal final scene, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The bigger problem is that what was shaping up to be a moving story of resilience very, very quickly devolved into a narrative about how a traumatized woman finds healing in a man; how having a pleasurable romantic and sexual relationship is the pinnacle of what humankind can achieve. And I get it, I understand that love is validating and even curative at times, I understand that it can be cathartic to read about characters who have suffered finding happiness, but what I don’t understand is the drastic shift from harrowing survival story to soppy, sensationalist drivel. And what I also don’t understand is how anyone could read this utterly vile ”romantic” declaration and find it moving or poignant or comforting or any of the things it’s supposed to be:

“But if that is the road God had you travel in order for our paths to cross, then we have no choice but to accept the purpose it has served and be grateful for it.”

So let me get this straight: Abeo is raped from ages 11 to 21, she gives birth to a child, she watches the child drown, and is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic for months even after she’s rescued… but wait, she finds a guy who doesn’t see her as damaged goods and suddenly she’s supposed to be grateful?! Again, I understand the intent here. But my god did this ever fail in execution.

And then we get to the final scene, the one that completely undoes the entire premise that ensnared the reader to begin with. Because in the prologue, Abeo kills the man who raped and tormented her; it’s a bold, shocking scene, and even knowing that event was coming added a layer of suspense and intrigue to the entire reading experience. But then it turns out to be — wait for it — a dream. And — wait for it — because she was able to kill this man in her dream, she can finally be at peace. Fin. What an utter cop-out. This book could have been an exploration of the lasting impact of trauma, it could have given its heroine a compassionate ending without compromising its exposition, but because of the last few chapters, a solidly captivating and eye-opening novel became a trite and forgettable one. Failing to live up to potential lends itself to a particularly potent kind of disappointment.[/SPOILERS]


You can pick up a copy of Praise Song for the Butterflies here on Book Depository.

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37 thoughts on “book review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (spoilers)

  1. I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes reading this. You critiqued it so well though, I completely agree that it’s frustrating and weird for something so promising to end in a validation-through-a-man’s love story. But then to even cram in an “it was all a dream!” moment…cringe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it godawful? This book could have ended in a hundred different ways that would have still been intellectually and emotionally satisfying but instead we got… this. How that ‘validation through a man’s love’ shit got past an editor in 2018 is beyond me.

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  2. You captured exactly the issues I had with this book. This is particularly frustrating for me because I’ve experienced trauma much, much “lighter” than this which didn’t “resolve itself” in any way similar to hers, so seeing her being cured so quickly and in such a final way was upsetting. I’ve been postponing writing a review for this book, so maybe I’ll just say “see Rachel’s review” 😂 that sentence from the guy she dates just absolutely infuriated me! Ugh. I’m rethinking my rating 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    • I mean, there is still plenty to love about the book! I thought the entire time that I was going to give it 4 stars, but that ending made me so furious that it’s all I can think about days later. Ugh, I’m sorry that this struck a personal chord with you, I’m sure it must have felt so belittling to see her trauma wrapped up in a neat bow like that. That’s just not real life and it’s not a satisfying end to Abeo’s story.

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      • Well that’s okay, books touch on sensitive issues so I knew what I was getting into and it didn’t affect me or anything… but I wonder how much that would be showing on my review and it feels personal to talk abt it and weird to write a review without mentioning sth that impacted my experience with the book so much.

        There was definitely lots to love about the book! I think without the ending it would have been a 3-to-4 stars book. Did you like her writing?

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s definitely tricky to navigate that kind of thing, because you obviously(!!) don’t owe anyone your story let alone strangers on the internet, but I know it can also feel ‘inauthentic’ to affect a removed attitude about something you have a personal connection to. So, I sympathize, and wish you luck with your review! Or if you want to just link to mine, feel free. (Not in a shameless self-promotion kind of way, just if you don’t feel like dealing with the hassle of it.)

        I thought her writing really suited the story she was telling. It was a bit simplistic at times, but I almost prefer that to overly flowery prose when authors are dealing with a harrowing subject matter, because I feel like when authors are trying to strive for something literary in these cases it falls very easily into melodrama. So I’m not sure I’d read another book by her for the writing alone, but for how it worked with this novel I won’t complain! About that aspect, anyway.

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  3. This sounds like it would make me really furious. I’d already listed this as one of the four longlisted books I’m not keen to read unless they get shortlisted, but this has confirmed my decision!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fury is exactly what I was feeling when I put it down. I’m sincerely hoping it’s not shortlisted, how it ended up longlisted in the first place is beyond me. I think this is one of those situations where people praise the book it was trying to be rather than the book it ended up being? Either way, you are wise to skip it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Noooooo! “It was all a dream” is my second least favourite narrative trope, topped only by “rape and trauma are instantly vanquishable, but only through the love of a Good Man”. Not sure I’ve ever seen both together in the wild before.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was HORRIFIED when I realized that was the direction it was going. I can’t remember the last time there was such a dissonance between the way I felt about a book on page 100 and the way I felt at the end.

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      • If this is shortlisted I will RIOT. I still think half the longlist (sadly, the half I read months ago for the most part) is very, very solid.

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      • Same, although the titles that I read after the longlist announcement have been really good so far! (I will confess that I started My Sister, the Serial Killer and decided I couldn’t be arsed about 20 pages in; and I’ve also decided not to read Swan Song unless it’s shortlisted. But that also seems [hopefully] unlikely.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Noo I think poor Serial Killer is very underrated. But GOD Swan Song is miserable. I’ve been reading it for 100 years and I’m still only 29% of the way through.

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      • I might change my mind about Serial Killer, but it really didn’t grab me. (In fairness, I was reading it standing up outside a pub, but still, I’d hope for a level of immediate interest from a book with that title and premise.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I hope you do! I found it deceptively clever and nuanced for something that I was expecting to be popcorn entertainment. Kudos for being able to read whilst standing outside a pub at any rate, I think I’m too easily distracted by noise to adopt that habit.

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  5. I love this review and cannot even comprehend that someone used the “it was a dream” thing, it’s the worst cope out and it’s NEVER satisfying?? I got mad reading this, I can only imagine how frustrating it was to actually read it. On the plus side, this is a fantastic review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it AWFUL?? And maybe it wouldn’t have felt quite as offensive if we didn’t have that prologue, if it just ended on the dream scene – it would still be corny but it wouldn’t have sacrificed an ENTIRE BOOK’S WORTH of build-up that never comes to fruition. Ugh. But, thank you! 😀

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  6. I’m not sure how I missed this review but I’m so glad to find it now! I completely agree with your outrage at the ending, and cringed hard at that same line! What a letdown, especially as you’d been mostly enjoying the book so far. I was optimistic after the first couple of chapters, but the writing was very grating for me; I agree that a simplistic style was the way to go with this subject matter, but somehow for me it felt similar to the condescending way bad YA books are written, where the author just doesn’t seem to trust the reader’s intelligence. There was such potential for this story, but in the end, it fell flat. It was worth finishing just to read your review, though! Your negative reviews always seem so on point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohh likewise I missed your comment, sorry about that!! God wasn’t that line HORRIFYING? I screenshotted that and sent it to a friend who had also read this being like WTF AM I READING and she was just like ‘ha, I was waiting for you to get there.’ (And I think it goes without saying that I wouldn’t have minded a line like that if it had been CHALLENGED and not ROMANTICIZED ugh ugh ugh.) But yes, I do see where you’re coming from with the writing style – I’m not sure why it didn’t bother me more tbh, maybe because the book was so short? I’m not sure I could have handled that writing style for 500 pages, but for a quick book it didn’t bother me too much. But yes, I’m so disappointed because this book could have been brilliant but instead it was… this 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • No problem. And yes, it was horrifying! I tried to move on from it pretty quickly to find out whether it was going to be challenged, but alas. The nail in the coffin. I can understand it being longlisted, aside from the atrocious ending, but I hope that’s as far as this one goes!

        Liked by 1 person

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