As soon as I read Jen Robinson's review of Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies, I knew I had to read it. I requested it from my library, picked it up on Saturday, and read it in one day. It was that good.
The book is told in alternating chapters by 14-year-old best friends Agnes and Honey who have spent their entire lives in Mount Blessing, a religious commune in Connecticut. Separated from the outside world, the girls have lived under the stringent rules of Emmanuel, the commune's abusive leader, who professes to be a healer and likens himself to Jesus.
Agnes is a "true believer" and aspires to be a saint. She believes every word Emmanuel tells her, frequently fasts, and even tightly ties a rope around her waist to remind her of her sinful ways. Honey, on the other hand, is a skeptic. Her mother left Honey behind at the commune when she was just an infant, and she's always felt like an outsider. She's also seen a bit of the outside world through a forbidden TV and secret visits to a neighboring farm.
When Agnes' grandmother Nana Pete comes for a surprise visit, she discovers the two girls have recently been beaten in the commune's secret "Regulation Room," and decides that she must take the girls and Agnes' younger brother Benny away at once. Well, imagine taking a true believer out of the only world she has ever known. There's bound to be a bit of conflict and self-discovery, and in the end, Agnes must be braver than she's ever been to do what she believes is right.
Even though I predicted the "surprise revelation" at the end of book early on, I thoroughly enjoyed The Patron Saint of Butterflies and think it would be a thought-provoking read for teenage girls who are at that age struggling with self-identify, friendships, and more. It's very difficult to pull of multiple narrators in a book, but Cecilia Galante brilliantly executed it. There was never a question as to who was speaking as each girl had a distinct voice. The characters were also well developed and very believable.
Their reactions to situations in the book are fitting for their age, and I especially thought that Galante did an exceptional job at capturing Agnes' emotions as she struggles with the fact that maybe Emmanuel is not the perfect god-like human she previously thought him to be. Take this passage when Nana Pete escapes with the children and takes young Benny to the hospital after he severs his fingers in a door and Emmanuel claims to have healed him:
"'I'm going to have to undo everything that Emmanuel guy did,' he [the ER doctor] says, talking directly to Nana Pete. 'And then I will try to salvage what is left and reattach those fingers the right way.' He grimaces. 'It's going to be a complicated surgery...'
'Wait!' I plead, rushing out into the hall.
'Emmanuel didn't heal him? There was no miracle?'
Dr. Panetta gazes curiously at me for a long moment. His eyes are gray with little specks of blue in them. 'No,' he says gently. 'There was no miracle.'
And then he is gone. The two words reverberate through my head.
No miracle. No miracle. No miracle.
Behind me, Honey's hand descends lightly on my shoulder. It feels like a thousand pounds.
'Don't touch me,' I say, shrugging her off. 'I mean it. Don't touch me.' " (pages 125-126)
I was equally impressed that despite some intense, emotional, and dark moments, the book doesn't come across as preachy. I don't think it's a book that seeks to tell you about the "unknown horrors" of religious communes even given the fact that Galante lived in one until she was fifteen. Instead, it's about the test of friendship, the journey of self-discovery, and the personal quest to discover what "good" is.
A book that is sure to spark discussion, I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more of Galante's work.
What Other Bloggers Are Saying:
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "The genius of this book is Galante's telling of the story from both Agnes and Honey's perspectives. Each girl's personality comes through clearly, and together they give the reader a full perspective on life in this repressive religious commune." (read more...)
A big thanks to Jen for the links to other reviews:
Feminist Review: "The Patron Saint of Butterflies is a heartfelt story of self-discovery. It showcases strong female characters who represent the power and importance of independent thinking." (read more...)
Miss Erin: "Completely fantastic. It's really dark in spots, but beautiful, like a butterfly. How in the world did the author pull this book off?" (read more...)
Becky's Book Reviews: "The book is intense and powerful and well written." (read more...)
Pixie Stix Kids Pix: "There were a couple of harrowing moments in the reading where I was so emotionally invested that I had a hard time remembering that I was not actually in the book." (read more...)
The Reading Zone: "I loved this book and recommend it for anyone interested in faith, religions, growing up, and the current events taking place with the polygamists in Texas. A great book for book clubs! I can also see this being used in the classroom because it would spark some great discussions!" (read more...)
In the Pages: " Great novel - deals heavily with the power of friendship, faith, and the true meaning of love for each other." (read more...)
Abby the Librarian: "Besides the intriguing characters, the writing made me feel like I was there. When Honey was working in the butterfly garden at the commune, I could feel the sun on my face and smell the fresh earth all around me." (read more...)
Sarah Miller: "This may be a book with something to say something about religion, but Cecilia Galante is smart enough not to turn her story into a pulpit. The plot is quick and intense, and the writing vivid enough that after Honey tasted her fist Big Mac, I just had to do the same." (read more...)
Reader Rabbit: "When reading the Patron Saint of Butterflies, I was entranced and devoured the book all in one go. The plot was hard-hitting and truthful and the author’s voice never turned "preachy." (read more...)
- Reading Level: Young adult
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books; 1st edition (April 1, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1599902494
- ISBN-13: 978-1599902494
- Source: Library