Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

I have a feeling I'm going to end up confessing all of my book obsessions on this blog. I've already confessed my obsession with the Salem witch trials, and horse books, so here's obsession number three: religious communes.

I know. It's weird. I don't know why I like these books - I haven't even read all that many, really, but when I come across one I have to read it. Luckily, The Patron Saint of Butterflies is an excellent book - I'm so glad my compulsion led me to read it.

Agnes and Honey have grown up as close as sisters at Mount Blessing, their strict religious commune in Connecticut. They are Believers, who absolutely follow the teachings of their leader Emmanuel, teachings about everything from maintaining modesty (so everyone wears blue robes) to avoiding red and orange foods (symbols of the devil). Agnes and Honey were born in the commune - Agnes to parents that have been with Emmanuel since he founded the commune, while Honey's mother abandoned her when she was an infant. Honey has since lived with Winky, the groundskeeper for Mount Blessing who tends a beautiful butterfly garden with Honey, and shares with her his love of butterflies and illicit Yankees games on his black and white TV (electronics are also forbidden to the Believers).

But lately, Agnes and Honey have been growing apart. Agnes is desperate to become a saint, and tries to live her life as perfectly as possible. When she feels she fails in attaining perfection, she punishes herself in some way, ranging from fasting until she faints to sleeping with rocks in her bed. Honey, on the other hand, is feeling rebellious towards the commune: she's beginning to doubt that Emmanuel is godlike in any way. Her rebelliousness constantly gets her, and Agnes, who often accompanies her despite her better judgment, sent to the Regulation Room, where Emmanuel beats wayward Believers with belts.

When Agnes' Nana Pete drops in for an unexpected visit to the commune, she discovers for the first time the horrors of the Regulation Room. After Agnes' little brother, Benny, has his hand hurt in an accident - and Emmanuel tries to heal the injury with faith and a needle and thread - Nana Pete loads Honey, Agnes and Benny into her car and whisks them away from the dangers of the commune.

The family is sent on a road trip that is about a lot more than just getting Benny surgical treatment and Honey and Agnes away from the beatings in the Regulation Room - it leads them all on a journey to discover what faith, and family, really are.

This was an extremely touching story that had me near tears twice (once from sadness and once from happiness - and the latter happens much less to me than the former!). Many of the characters are extremely well drawn and nuanced, even characters that don't get as much focus, such as Winky. Both Agnes and Honey have heartbreaking stories - Honey continues to feel abandoned, even though her mother left 14 years ago, and Agnes' struggle towards sainthood is painful to read about at times, yet I was constantly compelled to keep reading.
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