TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > The Butterfly Clues

The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison
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's review
Feb 10, 2012

really liked it

Originally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers

Tap, tap, tap. Banana.

Penelope Marin (Pe-ne-lo-pe Ma-rin, 6 syllables, 6 is a good number), is a seventeen year old high school junior, a daughter, a sister, and afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder. Since her brother Oren's death a year earlier, Lo's compulsions and rituals have increased in intensity - she has to tap three times and say banana before entering or leaving a room; she repeats things in multiples of three, six, or nine; she steals and hoards objects that call out to her. When she stumbles across a blue butterfly pendant necklace, she knows she must have it for her own, only to learn that it belonged to a young woman named Sapphire - a stripper recently killed in "Neverland", the crime-ridden inner city part of Cleveland. Lo feels a connection to Sapphire, and dives relentlessly into the mystery of her murder. Lo's quest for answers draws her into the darkest reaches of Neverland, to dumpsters, abandoned buildings, heroin dens, and strip clubs. With the help of the enigmatic, secretive artist Flynt, Lo discovers what fate befell Sapphire - and how the murdered girl's story ties into Lo's, and her brother Oren's, own.

The debut novel from Kate Ellison, The Butterfly Clues is an incisive, unflinching novel that is often painful to read, but brilliant because of it. Narrated in the first person by Penelope, the novel delves into the mind of a girl driven and trapped by her compulsions - numbers, objects, and rituals. Penelope is a heroine unlike any other that I've ever read, and seeing first-hand her extreme compulsions and her inability to stop even though she wants to - even when her very life is in danger in one pivotal scene, Lo cannot stop herself from her patters and rituals, and this is a terrifying, powerful thing to read. Ms. Ellison's portrayal of Lo's severe OCD rings as wholly genuine and deals with the implications of the anxiety disorder in a way that is both believable and non-exploitative. I felt physically and emotionally pained at points in this book because of Lo's disorder and the shame she feels, her huge self-doubts, her shattered family life (what with her drugged-out mother and never present father), and her enslavement to her myriad rituals. I felt deeply for Penelope, and the fact that I was so frustrated at times during The Butterfly Clues speaks to the powerful character and realism with which Ms. Ellison writes. Beyond her OCD, Lo is a character with vibrant thoughts and feelings and an almost poetic point of view; she's tenacious and brave in the face of fear, and refreshingly unafraid to ask for help.

Lo's counterpart in The Butterfly Clues is Flynt; a runaway, street artist, with his own shadowed past. I liked Flynt's devil-may-care alternative to the typical high school hero (heck, he's not even in school because of his past). As a pair, Lo and Flynt are a strong, complimentary duo that play on the fringes of the familiar YA space, and I liked that Ms. Ellison is not afraid to push the envelope. There are no value judgements assigned through Lo's eyes - not to those who are homeless, not to those that have dropped out of school, not toward strippers, and not to those who live in Neverland.

As a pure mystery, The Butterfly Clues is less compelling - the overall mystery of Sapphire, her Bird, and her death are fairly obvious, though the plot is tightly written. The only thing that truly bothered me about the novel, however, was how complacent Lo's parents, particularly her father, and Flynt are to her compulsions at the end of the novel. Yes, there is no be all cure for obsessive compulsive disorder, but the novel ends on a strange note where it doesn't seem like Lo will be receiving any kind of further treatment, and this is hugely problematic because Lo's condition is incredibly severe. That said, I did like that there are no happy ever after simple solutions to the story. There's a resolution and happiness of sorts, but clearly Penelope, Flynt, and her family have their scars, burdens, and future battles to fight. But, with any luck, they'll have each other to get through them.

Overall, I found The Butterfly Clues to be a painful, powerful novel and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Tap, tap, tap. Banana.
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