Review: In the Time of the Butterflies

Five stars

THE PLOT: ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’ by Julia Alvarez is a historical novel based on the real lives of the Mirabel sisters aka Las Mariposas (the Butterflies). The sisters were revolutionaries, fighting against the Dominican Republic’s dictator Trujillo until they were murdered by agents of the regime in 1960. Told in sections narrated by each sister, the book spans from their early childhood through to marriage and motherhood. It explores how they each became advocates for human rights and symbols of the struggle against oppression.

RATING: Five stars isn’t enough. This book has instantly become one of my favourite books of all time. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, with gorgeous writing and the strongest characters. I will never have enough words to praise this novel. I read this book while on holiday in the Dominican Republic and I love what it taught me about the country. But most of all I love what it taught me about the power of fiction. It is not intended to be an historical account – some characters were condensed and events changed, but it captures the spirit of living under a dictatorship and the courage needed to rebel.

In the words of Julia Alvarez in the Author’s Note: “A novel is not, after all, an historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.”

GOOD BITS: Everything about this novel is perfect but I’ll take this opportunity to praise the structure. Using multiple points of view for each sister makes the reader feel like they really know each one, and the subtle use of different storytelling formats for each sister was genius. I particularly like how the novel includes the modern-day point of view of the surviving sister telling her story to the author. This gave an extra layer of understanding of the legacy of Las Mariposas and the role of storytelling to fight oppression.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: It’s pretty clear that I love this novel but I’d also love to discuss these points with the author… [Not really spoilers as you’ll only understand if you’ve already read the book] Firstly, I wish we’d got a chance to see Minerva’s relationship with Manolo through her perspective. As a woman who was focused on education and married later in life, I’d like to see their relationship develop. Secondly, I couldn’t believe Minerva would hide Lío’s letters in the lining of her purse. I want Alvarez and her editor to discuss this with me from a plot-building perspective.  

OVERALL: Everyone should read this book. The impact of these women is huge and something everyone should understand. For example, Las Mariposas inspired the UN to establish 25th November, the day of their murder, as the international day to eliminate all violence against women and this story makes the pleas of those suffering and seeking refuge from violent regimes even more vivid. But, as well as everyone, I’d recommend it to lovers of ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May-Alcott, ‘Dominicana’ by Angie Cruz, and ‘America is Not the Heart’ by Elaine Castillo.

Stories operate in such indirect and invisible ways that often we come out of a story or poem that has moved us a different person than before we started reading. Novels are not polemical arguments, mobilizing people with ideology and propaganda. Instead, they work one imagination at a time, rooting conviction in the heart, stirring us deeply, and thereby bringing about a more profound and lasting transformation. The muscles of compassion we exercise as readers are, after all, the same ones that motivate us to change the world

 – Julia Alvarez, April 2019