Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Book Review: Virgin with Butterflies

Title: Virgin with Butterflies
Author: Tom Powers
Year Published: 2009 (originally 1945)
Genre: Adventure, General and literary fiction

(I apologise in advance for the length of this review.)

Look at the cover.

Just look at it.

When a dear friend pressed Virgin with Butterflies into my hands, I knew I held something special. Sure, virgins are a dime a dozen when it comes to fiction, especially when paired with the words “bride”, “mistress”, “boss's” and “billionaire's”, but here we have a virgin who is not defined by a man. Here we have a virgin who sits – as a queen – with a bunch of man-butterflies as her subjects (admittedly, it may seem that “butterflies” is a euphemism for men, but at least they're not men who own her). Upon flipping the book over, I discovered that the blurb only added to the book's mystery – the heroine is described as a blonde (!!) who collects rich men and has (magic?) butterflies that warn her when danger approaches. How could I resist?

I had two hopes: either the book would be hilariously bad or surprisingly good.

In the end, it was just so-so.

So what's it about? Well, at the brink of WWII, a down-to-earth American gal helps out a visiting Indian prince in a bar fight. For some reason she then accompanies him as he flies around the world selling jewels. In the process, she is admired by many men and receives many gifts. That's it. It's never explained why the heroine agrees to go in the first place, especially since she seems so surprised about it all and I can only assume it was because she wanted to be safe from the petty criminals who attacked the prince. It doesn't make sense, but there you go.

The narration is done in a really casual first person. Just imagine those old black and white American movies where a woman goes “so I says to Darlene, I says” and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the entire book reads like. I'm not entirely sure what to make of the heroine. She has the Mary Sue-esque trait of being obliviously but obviously gorgeous and every man she meets comes to admire her in one way or another. Still, she's somewhat likeable, being good and kind and decent. She's also practical and surprisingly culturally sensitive, but the thing that stands out is how simple she is.

Her cluelessness at times almost beggars belief, especially when it comes to how she even gets to flying about with the prince in the first place. She's a grown woman, not a child, and I can't quite decide whether she's irritating or charming or both, for instance, when she says things like “some other Japanese that sure was no gentlemen, they came over to a place that's called Pearl Harbour and they blew it right up. And they oughtn't to of done that, so there was a war.” (p78-9 for those playing at home).

For a book that was written in the 40s, it's pretty non-racist. In fact, I'd probably go so far as to say it's almost the opposite, promoting cultural and religious tolerance. There's a number of racial stereotypes, but they're fairly mild and apply equally to everyone, including the British, who say things like (p159) “Quite a bit of a neat show, what?” and so on. The worst of it is probably the depiction of the Sudanese king, who is shown to value a sewing machine above several sacks of gold, because somehow no one had ever thought to sell him another sewing machine or something. Be ye warned.

As for the actual story, it's not very well told. The narration jumps back and forth in time, and the main plot of travelling is further interwoven with a story about the heroine's family – namely her brother's arrest and her uncle's evilness. While such a style of storytelling might have worked with a different narrator or writer, it's just annoying here. All the jumping about destroys suspense and serves only to baffle and disappoint. The narrator will mention some future ~exciting event~, and then when we actually get to the ~exciting event~, it's just glossed over or blandly described. It's almost like watching a movie and realising that you've already seen all the good bits in the trailer. The style matches the heroine's character, so I guess the heroine just isn't a very good storyteller.

The same goes for the descriptions. The heroine visits many exotic locales, but it feels like the countries are name-dropped rather than explored. The worst part I can pinpoint is the non-description of an Indian temple on p169: 
“Well, it's no use trying to tell all about it, because if anybody's been to the movies enough you don't have to describe nothing much. They know what it looks like. And that's just what it did.” 
This is after the temple is described as “a huge big church with no windows and no pews and no Stations of the Cross or anything”. Thanks for that, narrator!

In summary, I didn't really enjoy this book. If you were thinking of reading this for the lulz, you'll probably be disappointed for the most part. If, however, you really enjoyed the excerpts I posted, then you'll probably find it very funny indeed. Personally, I found it a little on the boring side, the poor story outweighing what lulz there is. The heroine's voice is easy to read and there's a good sense of her character, but I can't decide if she's annoying or sweet and at any rate, the story and its telling aren't the greatest. The cover and title are the best thing about this book and they (along with the blurb) are misleading – other than the Indian prince, I can only guess at who the other heads are supposed to be. And FYI, the titular butterflies refer to stomach flutters (how disappointing, am I right?). I had maybe been hoping for some kind of mystery story where the heroine, by reason of her virginity, can control some magic butterflies that are actually spirits of men and she must escape pursuers who want the butterflies for their own nefarious purposes or something. But yeah. I was wrong. Still, take my dismissal with more than a grain of salt, for though I say there isn't much to this book, I have somehow managed to write this freaking essay on it (with quotes, no less).

Alex's Rating: 2.5/5

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