Butterfly’s Child by Alan Chin
While back in the West to attend his grandmother’s funeral, Cord Bridger uncovers two shocking revelations: his grandmother had a lesbian lover named Juanita; and he has a teenaged son named Kalin. Fate brings all three together, but to preserve his new family, Cord must leave his safe life in New York City behind to carve a living from the harsh ranch lands of Nevada.
To forge a life with Juanita and Kalin, Cord must first discover the dark secret burning a hole in Kalin’s heart. With the help of Tomeo, a handsome Japanese veterinarian, Cord travels a gut-wrenching road of triumphs and tragedies to insure his son will survive the sinister violence of his past. But as Tomeo becomes more than just a helpful friend to Cord, a new set of problems arise between Cord and Kalin that may threaten the happiness of them all.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Butterfly’s Child is a study in relationships more than anything; specifically the dynamic between father and sons but also between brothers, friends, and lovers. The story delves into the complexities of parenthood while trying to figure out one’s own life. There are large leaps in time and the most interesting facets to me are often ignored and skipped over, leaving a weak thread that continues the story to the end. There is a love interest between the main character Cord and Tomeo but this is definitely not the focus and almost a side detail. In many respects Butterfly’s Child is well written and fascinating with few technical errors to detract but I find the story tries too hard, often lecturing about topics and the most interesting aspects to me were the least explored.
The story begins with Cord’s life in New York. He works in a piano factory for Steinway and lives a very comfortable life with his partner Cameron. However comfortable and easy that life may be is offset by its obvious emptiness. Cameron and Cord barely speak, never touch, and have forced difficult conversations together. Cord is drifting through life, detached and lonely even as he blames Cameron for their failed relationship. When Cord returns to his hometown in Nevada for his grandmother’s funeral, his life begins to change.
Told in third person from various points of view, the novel is a character study in relationships. The opening scene at the opera Madame Butterfly is meant to show Cord’s lingering wounds from his mother’s suicide and how his pain is mirrored by the staged tragedy. This of course comes close to mirroring Cord’s newly discovered son Kalin’s life. The theme of father abandonment is the first and most obvious concept introduced and used frequently. Cord feels abandoned by his father and in turn, Cord abandoned his son Kalin. Of course Cord didn’t know about Kalin but that doesn’t change the emotion Kalin feels, one that Cord can relate to but at the same time doesn’t use that similar anger and emotion to any productive end. There is resolution on many levels but often this is prompted by outside events rather than a slow understanding and more realistic change.
While Cord is developing new relationships with his new children – Kalin his biological son and Jem, Kalin’s half brother – Cord is also dealing with what he wants his new life to be. This is where the story stumbles for me. Cord leaves his extremely comfortable, if empty, life in New York for a very rural, difficult existence in Nevada. While I don’t question Cord’s impetus for change and motivation to be a strong force in his sons’ lives, I also feel the change comes way too easily. The new ranch house has no electricity, no running water, no car, and there are no scenes about the difficultly in adjusting. Perhaps it’s because I’m a girl but I can’t imagine living that far off the grid – no shower, no lights, no cell charger, no phone at all – without some sort of adjustment period. I find it too unrealistic that Cord and subsequently every other character takes to the life without complaint or problems. Not even muttered complaints from the children about the lack of cartoons.
Another issue I have is that Jem, the adorable seven year old, acts and thinks like a miniature adult. Jem is often the lighter perspective and offers a child’s glee at life and wonder at new discovery. These scenes and Jem’s entertaining view on teenage and adult actions offer a bright and bubbly addition to the story. Yet the thoughts and dialogue afforded to Jem are way too mature and adult, especially considering Jem has yet to start any kind of schooling. The language is simply too sophisticated and most of the time I liked the comments, dialogue, internal thoughts and musings yet couldn’t forget how adult and inappropriate they were. Part of this is that there is no discerning difference between the various characters. They feel too similar and Jem’s voice is practically the same as Cord’s with only a few more giggles. Unfortunately this takes away a lot of Jem’s effectiveness as he’s a great character but way too mature.
While the characters are all fully complex and developed with varying degrees of interest and depth, there is a lot of interesting information offered in other areas. From opera and piano tuning to ranching and Buddhism, the story contains a wealth of knowledge. Some of these details are quite fascinating while others take on a near lecturing tone. There are several concepts with heavy emphasis that feel less in line with the characters and their choices and more in line with what the story wants. Whether the reader finds these inclusions annoying or interesting will be very subjective. The story is careful to show more than tell though and these are the obvious exceptions.
Although the story is at heart a character dependant journey, there are numerous outside forces that serve to advance the time line and keep the story moving. Some of the issues are too easy and pat – the school teacher issue is by far the most over the top, although the drug dealer is semi ridiculous – the real strength of the story is depicting the relationships between the men. From Cord and Tomeo to their sons, the scenes that really stand out are those that show how fluid and complex these relationships are. Often the scenes are cut short and the depth of emotion kept light and easy. Most arguments are avoided by letting things go and not talking, others are simply given time. The few disagreements between Tomeo and Cord that potentially come up are forgotten and let go almost immediately, leaving me wondering why they were included at all. Yet the complications of these various men as they fit together are what kept me reading. The language has a natural flow and pace that never feels boring, even as large chunks of time are skipped entirely.
I didn’t altogether enjoy the story for all the reasons outlined but for the right reader I think the complexity can really sing. Chin can write a great story and has a command of language that definitely appeals. The quiet moments and underlying intensity will connect with the right reader. This has the potential to really engage the reader and leave a lingering impact. It didn’t with me but I wouldn’t let that scare any readers away. Butterfly’s Child has a beautiful message that will reach its reader.