book review: The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison

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THE SUMMER CHILDREN by Dot Hutchison
★★☆☆☆
Thomas & Mercer, May 22, 2018

Well. All I have to say about Dot Hutchison’s Collector series is: nothing gold can stay.

Dark, twisted, and gripping, I thought The Butterfly Garden was altogether pretty brilliant. But Hutchison’s followup novel, Roses of May, provided a starling (and in my opinion, utterly grating) tonal shift, abandoning a lot of the creepiness of the first novel and coming across as ultimately rather juvenile. I was hoping The Summer Children might bounce back and show a hint of The Butterfly Garden‘s greatness, but I’m afraid this had nothing to offer but more of that obnoxious fan-servicing cutesy humor that plagued Roses of May. I mean, in theory, The Summer Children should be dark. It follows FBI agent Mercedes Ramirez as she investigates a series of murders by someone who’s attempting to ‘rescue’ children from abusive households by killing their parents. The last thing I should be thinking is ‘why does this have to be so goddamn twee,’ but here we are.

This kind of goes hand in hand with my criticism of the book’s tone, but what’s so insufferable about Roses of May and The Summer Children is how obsessed Hutchison is with her own protagonists. Sure, they’re all flawed (in super palatable ways), but they’re also the most competent and considerate people in the universe, and we need to be reminded of it again. and. again. There are entire scenes that serve no narrative purpose but to self-congratulate. Is it not bad enough that we have to revisit Mercedes’s proclivity toward being honest with the children she works with on about twenty separate occasions, do we really have to laud it each time?

Maybe it’s just me, but I like stories that dig into human imperfections – characters who say the wrong thing and can’t take it back, characters who react inappropriately in dire situations, characters hurt the people they love by mistake. There is none of that here. Mercedes and her team can do no wrong, and we need to pat them on the backs every time they know exactly what someone needs at exactly the right time. And that’s another thing – the found family trope is usually one of my favorites, but the way Hutchison writes it is so heavy-handed I spent most of this book cringing with secondhand embarrassment.

Speaking of cringing – this is a passage I highlighted not only because of the corny writing, but because it was probably the fourteenth or fifteenth time the word ‘scar’ had jumped out at me in this book. “Scars mean we survived something, even when the wounds still hurt.” Anyway, so I did a search on my Kindle, and do you know how many times the word ‘scar’ is used? Twenty-seven. Talk about being bashed over the head.

Bottom line is that I was not the target audience here, and I ordinarily don’t hold this kind of thing against the book as much as I am doing right now, but I can’t help but to find it irritating that all the maturity of the first book sort of evaporated in the second two. I guess this can’t technically be classified as YA as the protagonist is in her thirties, but trust me, if you do not enjoy YA, read The Butterfly Garden as a standalone and move on.

Thank you to Netgalley, Thomas & Mercer, and Dot Hutchison for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Roses of May by Dot Hutchinson

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Roses of May by Dot Hutchinson

US pub date: May 23, 2017

★★★☆☆

Roses of May is more of a companion novel, rather than a sequel, to Hutchinson’s The Butterfly Garden. We sort of pick up where we left off, chronologically, but then we follow a different thread. FBI Agent Brandon Eddison features more heavily in this novel, and we see a fair bit of Inara and Bliss, but the meat of the story is about a new character altogether. Priya Svrasti’s sister Chavi was murdered by a serial killer five years ago; every May he seeks out a new victim, always a young girl, and murders her in a church and covers her with flowers. As springtime approaches, the FBI agents involved in the case – and Priya – want to make sure this man is found before he kills again.

What I found interesting about this novel is that Hutchinson didn’t play to what everyone agrees are the strengths that she exhibited in The Butterfly Garden. The power of that book was all in the atmosphere. The contrast between the stunning setting and the horrors that occurred in those pages made it both terrifying and unforgettable… but there’s none of that here. This is a rather run of the mill thriller that has none of The Butterfly Garden‘s magic.

That’s not to say that it’s boring. It isn’t. It’s a quick and engaging read. I wanted to know what happened, and I was immediately invested in Priya, who’s both strong and vulnerable, in a way that’s reminiscent of Inara (whom I loved), but not so similar that it feels like Hutchinson is rehashing the same character again.

However, there’s a lot that I was frustrated with. (1) To me, Priya’s relationship with her mother was completely unbelievable, and the extent of what her mother allowed was absolutely ridiculous (you’ll know what I’m talking about by the end). (2) I thought the FBI agents facilitating the connection between Priya and Inara was beyond unprofessional, and the interest they took in Priya fell somewhere in the realm of unprofessional and unbelievable – maybe both, I’m not entirely sure. (3) I was able to guess the killer the second he was introduced to the story, and anyone else who’s ever read a thriller will be able to do the same.

And finally, it’s up to you to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing (I think it’s clear where I stand on the matter), but just a general observation: this novel read a lot more like YA than The Butterfly Garden did. Priya is younger than Inara was, so that may have something to do with it, but honestly, there was just a general preachiness to it that I hadn’t really been expecting from an adult thriller. Two recurring themes in Roses of May are ‘it’s okay to not be okay,’ and ‘you choose your family,’ both of which Hutchinson bashes us over the head with, over. and over. and over. and over. I’m not kidding – toward the end, we literally have someone ask Priya if she’s okay, and she says something like “Aren’t I always?” and he replies “No. And that’s okay.” I lost track of the amount of times I rolled my eyes reading this book. Characters are also constantly making comments about how badass Priya and her mom are, which started to feel rather self-congratulatory by the end. There’s also a majorly corny excess of ‘this character knows EXACTLY what this other character needs, EXACTLY when they need it’… for such a dark subject matter, this book shows a rather idealized picture of humanity.

I mean, Hutchinson is a good writer. She knows how to craft a compelling story. She kept me flipping pages, both here and in The Butterfly Garden. But Roses of May just… wasn’t entirely what I wanted. It may have been stronger on its own than as a follow up to The Butterfly Garden, but Hutchinson set the bar high for herself with that one, and I can’t help but to feel like Roses of May suffered for it.

Trigger warnings for rape (nothing graphic, but it’s mentioned fairly frequently), suicide, eating disorders, and emetophobia.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Netgalley & Dot Hutchinson.