The Fall of Butterflies by Andrea Portes
Willa Parker, 646th and least popular resident of What Cheer, Iowa, is headed east to start a new life.Did she choose this new life? No, because that would be too easy—and nothing in Willa’s life is easy. It’s her famous genius mother’s idea to send her to ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive Pembroke Prep, and it’s only the strength of her name that got Willa accepted in the first place.But Willa has no intentions of fitting in at Pembroke. She’s not staying long, she decides. Not at this school—and not on this planet. But when she meets peculiar, glittering Remy Taft, the richest, most mysterious girl on campus, she starts to see a foothold in this foreign world—a place where she could maybe, possibly, sort of fit.When Willa looks at Remy, she sees a girl who has everything. But for Remy, having everything comes at a price. And as she spirals out of control, Willa can feel her spinning right out of her grasp.In Willa’s secret heart, all she’s ever wanted is to belong. But if Remy, the girl who gave her this world, is slip-sliding away, is Willa meant to follow her down?Andrea Portes’s incandescent, heartfelt novel explores the meaning of friendship, new beginnings, and the precarious joy and devastating pain of finding home in a place—a person—with wings.
Andrea Portes crafts novels that feel both distinctly ethereal, and relatable in a way that speaks to your most basic thoughts and insecurities. These, sheathed in off-beat and colorful characters, pair with the conversational narration in a way that's refreshing.The Fall of Butterflies in particular plays upon common, vivid tropes scattered throughout YA: the enigmatic best friend with a sordid relationship to her family? Check. The pretentious boarding school riddled with I-don't-belong-here moments? Check. Well-played in many books I've loved.For example, Even in Paradise is one of my favorite books, and the plots of these two are relatively parallel. But I love The Fall of Butterflies for different reasons, and I don't mind reading similar books if the tones are distinct.That brings me back to the reason I loved Andrea Portes's debut novel, Anatomy of a Misfit: the voice. Her characters are quirky. Still, they're solid and real in a way that almost directly contradicts that wistfulness. Her protagonist in The Fall of Butterflies articulates it well:
I am what they refer to as "special." They say this word, "special," when what they really mean is "different" or "strange." Maybe that's why half the time I don't understand what's going on around me or who set the rules and why this world outside my head exists the way it exists or even exists at all.
The inner philosophy major in me loved reading Willa's inner musings about the world around her. Both the immediate world - including Remy and Pembroke Prep and all - and that containing loftier ideals: the meaning of existence, the purpose of romance, etc,. I love books that make me think, and ones that allow me to frame reflections within the context of my own life.The narration is perhaps the first thing the reader notices. It's all telling, no showing. It's all filtered through Willa's head, and thus contains the flavor of her personality in every line, every word. Because of that, the voice is so powerful. The scenes are short, but imaginative. The progression of events is appealing, well-paced, and absorbing.The book itself is character-driven for sure. I wouldn't have such a visceral reaction to it if not for Willa's traits as a protagonist that make her arresting. She's witty, intelligent, and strangely warm. Truthfully, she doesn't always use common sense and she comes across as a little bitter. But she's unapologetically herself, and so every story that's attributed to her - flashbacks, projections, etc,. - feels authentic. Her relationships with others complicate her own attributes, and make her even more of a mystery. (She does remind me of Anika from Anatomy of a Misfit, but not in a carbon-copy way. In a way that links them instead.)Remy, her best friend, is a whirlwind. She's has a bit of manic in her, a little bit of unflinching arrogance. But she is sympathetic, and Willa's interactions with her fluctuate between absolute adoration and empathetic concern. Throughout it all, Willa's strong enough to wonder about whether or not it's her job as a friend to care about Remy while she puts herself in increasingly dangerous, preposterous situations. Supporting characters - Willa's dad, Ms. Ingall, Milo - were still dynamic.The commentary in this book is another plus. There are topics like privilege and drugs and the world itself that are subtly yet decisively handled. Willa's way of seeing the world is thoughtful and also specific. I for one, agreed with her on some points and not on others - but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. Like I've mentioned, I want more complex characters rather than morally perfect ones.There are a few things that ticked me off - like Willa's apathetic representation of some other people, a few plot threads left unexplained. It does heavily rely on tropes, with some assumptions and lazy connections that are dropped and picked up on a whim. I can see why some readers wouldn't necessarily like the writing style. With that being said, I didn't mind it and so I ended up earnestly connecting with the narrative. Still, I don't think it's a book for everyone. Depends on what type of reader you are.In essence, it's a larger-than-life book. A vibrant one, with a dash of eccentricity. It's a plot we've seen a thousand times before, dependent on privilege and idealism, but it's handled through a narrator with an introspective, sometimes excruciating way of looking at the world. I loved it, and it's a Grace book for sure, but I also think you should take it with a grain of salt. Morally complex characters, familiar and intimately explored tropes, and lines that left me breathless.