In the Time of the Butterflies | Critical Review by Dwight Garner

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of In the Time of the Butterflies.
This section contains 821 words
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Critical Review by Dwight Garner

SOURCE: "A Writer's Revolution," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 32, Winter, 1994, p. 23.

In the following review, Garner finds In the Time of the Butterflies "a worthy novel with a mixed palette of human emotions, but Alvarez has sketched too frequently with pastels."

Julia Alvarez is a dreamboat of a writer. Her language is fresh and economical. She zeros right in on piquant details. Best of all, her feeling for the complex chemistry between Latin American women (primarily groups of daughters) is a joy to behold. Her two novels—How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, and now, In the Time of the Butterflies—sit lightly on the lap. They're never less than bright and engaging.

Perversely enough, though, Alvarez's new novel is wonderful in ways that occasionally blunt its emotional impact. Based loosely on a true story, In the Time of the Butterflies is about four middle-class sisters of the Dominican Republic who, along with their husbands, helped overthrow the corrupt and violent dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The revered Mirabal sisters were known by their code name, Las Mariposas—the Butterflies—and their politics cost them their lives. Three were assassinated in 1960, shortly before Trujillo's fall.

In the novel's postscript, Alvarez writes of her desire to humanize the Mirabals, who are "wrapped in superlatives" and have "ascended into myth" in the Dominican Republic. At this, she succeeds splendidly. The sisters—Patria, Minerva, Dede, and Maria Teresa—are each brought vividly to life. Alvarez tells their stories individually, in monologues and journal entries, and their voices are happily idiosyncratic.

The Mirabal house may be a place where, as Minerva notes, the young girls "had to ask permission for everything: to walk to the fields to see the tobacco filling out; to go the lagoon and dip our feet on a hot day; to stand in front of the store and pet the horses as the men loaded up their wagons with supplies." But it's also a house that brims with food and warmth and games, and as the girls grow they learn how much better their lives are than most people's under Trujillo's regime.

The girls' political and sexual awakenings, as often happens, coincide. There's a stunning scene in which Patria, while praying, finds her intense religious feelings crossing over into earthier regions: "My mouth, for instance, craved sweets, figs in their heavy syrup, coconut candy, soft golden flans. When those young men whose surnames have been appropriated for years by my mooning girlfriends came to the store and drummed their big hands on the counter, I wanted to take each finger in my mouth and feel their calluses with my tongue."

It's in this first half of In the Time of the Butterflies that the book seems most confident. Alvarez writes compellingly about growing up under a brutal political regime that squashed dissent and encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors. (Alvarez's own family fled the Dominican Republic when she was ten.) It's only later, when the Mirabal sisters themselves become political, that the book sometimes seems less convincing.

When several of the sisters begin dating men with ties to the country's leftist resistance movements, they themselves get drawn in. Before long, the sisters are hiding weapons shipments, making homemade bombs, and "the whole family walked around in fear" of being found out.

These scenes are well sketched, but Alvarez doesn't provide enough background (factual or emotional) for them. Although we learn about the horrors of Trujillo's regime, the country's politics are not discussed in any depth. Worse, you get no clear sense of what attracts the girls to radical politics, beyond glamour and simple reactionary anger. One minute they are kissing boys behind shrubs; the next, they're whipping up Molotov cocktails.

Alvarez's prose is almost too willfully deft and playful to impart a sense of gravity and drama to these proceedings. You're let down emotionally, because you never quite feel the danger the sisters are in. The bad guys rarely seem more than self-important stooges, the equivalent of Keystone Cops, and the sisters' encounters with them feel almost like games. Later in the book, when the sisters and their husbands are imprisoned and treated badly, this problem is only exacerbated. Prison seems merely like a particularly shabby summer camp.

It's an old, creaky literary game, knocking a novelist for being too "writerly"—somehow too good at what she does. And Alvarez is far more than an air-dancing acrobat, shedding bright bits of fluff. On the basis of her first two books, she's shown a remarkable ability to climb inside the heads of her characters and distill complicated emotions into a sharp sentence or two. She's among America's finest young writers.

Here is a language of abundance; she sings hymns to the outsized joys and sorrows of quotidian existence. In In the Time of the Butterflies, however, her exuberance betrays her somewhat. This is a worthy novel with a mixed palette of human emotion, but Alvarez has sketched too frequently with pastels.

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This section contains 821 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dwight Garner