Title: The Butterfly Clues
Author: Kate Ellison
Genre: mystery, young-adult
Pages: 336 (nook version of NetGalley ARC)
Published: expected February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Source: publishers via NetGalley
The Butterfly Clues has a lot going for it - an engaging and different heroine, a convoluted murder mystery and a teenage romance with real chemistry and feeling that doesn't become saccharine or overwrought. With an intriguing beginning and a simple, easy, almost sparse style of writing, this is a novel that sneaks up on you and can be devoured in several enveloping stints of reading. With much more emotion and feeling than I had expected, Ellison wove a spellbinding tale of Penelope "Lo" Marin and the multiple mysteries surrounding her melancholy existence. This more than exceeded my expectations: I was looking for a quick read time-filler and I found a heartfelt mystery with great characters. Though not perfect - I called the murderer pretty early on in the story - I will definitely be on the lookout for more novels by this author.
Lo is definitely a likeable protagonist: I felt an affinity and rapport with her from the first page. Highly individualistic, Lo has enough personality to fill the pages she graces. The first person is an excellent medium for Penelope Marin (I want to add the extra two on here for her sanity: Penelope Marin, Penelope Marin) to express her story, from her very distinct perspective. She suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and certain things (like saying her name three times in a row, or tap tap tap bananaing before entering a new room to ensure her safety) and rituals are the cornerstone of her life. A mysteriously dead brother named Oren, and two extremely removed parents create loneliness and sadness in abundance for Lo ("I've learned to live without anyone" she says early on), and sympathizing/empathizing with her was never an issue for me. Though Lo has her less-than-perfect side (one of her compulsions is an unswervable need to steal an object when she feels threatened/lonely/scared) she always remains relatable. Moving a lot has a left a feeling of impermanence for most of Lo's life, and her theft is an attempt to feel attached to something if not someplace. Ellison does a great job of humanizing Lo's multiple issues and odd compulsions without judgment. She's definitely human and real, showcasing common teen issues ("I didn't think anyone really saw anything I did, barring incidents of incredible embarrassment,") along with her less common problems (Oren, parents, witnessing a murder.)
Sadly the other characters, though mostly likeable, had none of the verve of Lo. The closest to matching her fire is Flynt, her mysterious, apparently vagrant love interest. While I do weary of the hackneyed and overplayed "sexy boy with a dangerous but mysterious past" in YA fiction, Flynt was a well-drawn "loose" personality, nicely contrasting with Lo's rigid routines and rules. The dynamic between the two works really very well: she only relaxes around Flynt, and he can be serious with her. While a love triangle is hinted at among them and another teenage character, it's quite obvious that the only match for Lo is with Flynt and the author doesn't descend into melodrama and angst for Lo to figure that out: she's self-aware and smart enough to make her own decisions. Tellingly of her parents, Lo's mother doesn't even appear for about 170 pages and event hen she's more of a shadow than a character. I can understand that the mom is grieving over her lost son, Lo's brother Oren, but the depth to which she abandons her daughter is astonishing and sad. I couldn't find much initial liking for Lo's father as well: burying himself in his work, and his uncontrollable anger with Lo over her unavoidable counting make for a less than perfect dad. I will say that I did find some redemption and hope for a few characters I'd given up on, later on down the line.
While the plotting can be a bit obvious and hard-to-believe lucky (Lo's discoveries of the butterfly/horse almost immediately after the report? Unlikely), I found myself not minding overmuch. Ellison reaches a bit for some connections in her story, but in the end the payout reaps the benefits and more than makes up for any lack of subtlety. I guess I would say: the end more than justifies the means the author went to in order to achieve it. The disparate and compelling storylines keep the suspense high and my interest higher for the entirety of the story. I found myself postively racing through the final quarter of this novel: eager for resolution for Lo, for Flynt, for Oren and even for the murdered girl at the center of the mystery. I was never bored, and always guessing how the author would tie up all the loose ends. I did think the author had too many threads going at the same time, but I will say I was proved wrong in the end. Ms. Ellison manages to combine multiple disparate and seemingly random elements into a wrenching and touching finale. I was surprised by the strength of the emotions I had while reading this book, particularly the end. It was an impressive end to a book that captivated me from the beginning. I also have to add - how striking is that cover? It does a nice job - very evocative - of advertising the novel. Pick this one up.