Great at Evoking a Tme and Place

In the Time of the Butterflies - Julia Alvarez

In her Postscript, Alvarez wrote that she wanted the book to "immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic." I think she succeeded magnificently. She tells the story of the Trujillo era, when the small island republic was under the heel of one of the more notorious dictators of Latin America. She tells it by giving us a fictionalized account of the Mirabel sisters, known as the "<i>Mariposas</i>" (butterflies) who are national heroes.

If you'd have described this book to me, I'd have thought this would not likely be a book I'd like, let alone love. A book centered on a cell of communist revolutionaries involved in bomb-making who name their children after Che Guevera? NO! And this has these little quirks of literary fiction that often seem so artificial to me: shifts in narrative from present to past tense, from first to third person, portions in diary format, jumps in time. And I'm suspicious of works of "creative non-fiction" that blur the distinction between fact and fiction. Well, to take these things in reverse order, this isn't creative non-fiction. As Alvarez wrote in her postscript, the Mirabel sisters of this story are <i>her</i> invention, <i>her</i> creation. This is a <i>novel</i>, not fictionalized non-fiction--that's apparent from the start and I think made the story all the more powerful--she's not afraid to entirely inhabit her characters. Second, she's a master storyteller who kept me riveted from beginning to end--and this despite that she opens the novel with the surviving sister being visited by someone researching the story of the Mirabel sisters--so we know they're doomed from the start. Which lends only poignancy--and strangely suspense--to what follows. I was never jarred by the shifts in time, tense, point-of-view and narrative technique--Alvarez is that good.

And yes, I did care about the sisters. I didn't care for the one novel by Isabel Allende I'd tried, a celebrated Latin American author--Allende's novel seemed such naked Marxist propaganda to me. I never felt that way about <i>In the Time of the Butterflies</i>. Alvarez's novel is not polemic. It's a very personal, intimate story of four sisters and she's great at making them all very different from each other. I never had a problem keeping Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa apart--they all had such different voices, dreams and motivations. It was easy to identify with them and understand their choices. And it probably helped that I felt at home with her characters. My mother is Puerto Rican--it's not so different in culture to the Dominican Republic, and there were little phrases and details throughout where I felt a little shock of recognition. Alvarez evoked her time and place so well I felt I had visited there. It's hard to think of a higher compliment to give a novelist.