Monday, March 22, 2010

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 1994

It's about: This novel is a fictionalization of the lives of the Mirabals, a famous family of sisters who fought against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic of the 1950s.  Trujillo's era is known as one of the bloodiest in Dominican history, and his influence spread beyond his political power; he managed to form a sort of personality cult that infiltrated society on the most basic level.  The book begins from the perspective of the only surviving sister out of the 4, remembering the lives and martyrdom of her family members.  It then moves through a series of first person techniques from the perspectives of each of the sisters, who fight against dictatorship and eventually meet fall by its hands (Don't worry, I didn't ruin anything -- it says that they die in the very beginning of the book).

I thought: It is a little scary to write a novel about people who actually existed (the Mirabals) when there is very little biographical information available on them. So, though Alvarez's account is not historically accurate as far as the details of the Mirabals' lives go, it is a revealing portrait into the horrors, allure, and pervasiveness of the Trujillo dictatorship, an era of Dominican history with which the American public is not very familiar.  The changing narrative perspectives makes it an enjoyable read, and I was able to connect with the sisters on a very personal level -- I felt their fear, their fear of giving themselves to marriage, their fear of becoming bad mothers, their fear of dying, their fear of speaking out.  All in all, the book is an important one, if for nothing else than exposing the Trujillo regime, but beyond that, it is a satisfying tale of sisters who love, hate, fight, and resist not so differently from any other sisters in the world.  My biggest complaint was a sort of anti-climactic conclusion.  Toward the end it built, built, built, with heart-pounding speed, and then it just sort of went to an afterward. 

Interesting information: Alvarez's parents fled the DR from the Trujillo regime, because her father was part of a subversive, anti-Trujillo plot that was discovered.  Alvarez was a young girl at the time, but she remained fascinated with the subject and returned to the DR to research and write about it.

Also, the novel was made into a movie adaptation in 2001 starring none other than Salma Hayek.  I haven't seen it, but from a brief clip that I've seen, it's probably not the most amazing adaptation I've ever seen.

There's also a documentary that has been made about the Mirabal sisters called Codename: Butterfly.  The trailer looks a little dramatic, of course, but it gives you a good background briefing before you read the book. See it here.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Warnings: There's not much to beware of in this novel.  There are some inferences that characters have sex, but there's nothing explicit.

PS - I'm writing my term paper for modern American literature on this book, and I'm exploring the theme of Trujillo's hyper-masculinity and sexuality relating to his power, and in opposition to that, the feminist resistance to that through their sexuality.  The way I talk about it, you'd think it's all about sex, but seriously -- it's not.

Look forward to my upcoming reviews of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Maddening Crowd and Cormac McCarthy's On the Road.