Mini Reviews: In the Time of Butterflies and The Price of Paradise

Oooh the clock is ticking down the hours of 2020 and I have reviews I’d like to post before the new year. I suspect I won’t get through all that I want to review but I’m giving it a good try! These two gems here are books I read earlier in the year and never got around to reviewing. In both cases, I had so much I wanted to say about them that I kept waiting to find a couple spare hours to do a little extra research and write reviews to do them justice… those hours were never quite found! Still, I’m at least going to give them some attention and highlight the salient bits.

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas–the Butterflies.
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters–Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé–speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from secret crushes to gunrunning, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human costs of political oppression.

The key thing to note about this novel is that it is fiction based on the author’s idea of how these very real (and fairly recent) heroines would have spoken and behaved in their personal lives. Alvarez captures historical dates, people and events with a high degree of accuracy but also takes extravagant artistic license. For that reason, if you are looking for something more concrete, raw, dramatic or immersive, this is not for you. I do not think the author glosses over the brutality of torture or the strains borne by a family filled with rebels. However, this is a story that also considers the more mundane, the ordinary. It captures the lives lived by four women in the Dominican Republic in the first half of the 20th century. Some parts, therefore, drag a little. There is no real suspense (until the last couple of chapters) as we know how the story ends. But we’re never entirely sure just when the most heart-breaking scenes will appear. The historical flashbacks are given through each sister’s perspective, with Dedé’s point of view shown in the past and the present.

The story of the Mirabal sisters, Las Mariposas, is not one I was overly familiar with before. After reading this book, I was fully incentivised to do some further research. I give In the Time of Butterflies 4/5 espresso shots.

In a city as corrupt as it was luxurious, those who dared to dream were bound to pay the price.

Havana, Cuba, 1947. Young Patricio flees impoverished Spain and steps into the sultry island paradise of Havana with only the clothes on his back and half-baked dreams of a better life. Blessed with good looks and natural charm, he lands a job as a runner at El Encanto—one of the most luxurious department stores in the world.

Famous for its exquisite offerings from French haute couture to Arabian silks, El Encanto indulges the senses in opulent extravagance. It caters to visiting Hollywood stars, rising politicos, and prerevolutionary Cuba’s wealthiest power players, including the notorious mobster César Valdés.

Falling in love with the mobster’s young wife, Gloria, is suicide. But Patricio is irresistibly drawn to the beautiful girl with sad eyes, a razor-sharp intellect, and a penchant for both Christian Dior’s clothes and Einstein’s theories. Within the walls of El Encanto, anything seems possible, even a love that promises to heal them and a desire that thrums with the mambo beat of the city itself.

In a reckless love affair that spans half a century, Patricio’s and Gloria’s lives entwine time and again, challenged by every twist of fate—for in a world of murder, betrayal, and revolution, those who dare to reach for paradise seldom survive unscathed.

Admittedly I cannot remember specific details about the audio version of this book (which comes free in Kindle Unlimited). However, I do remember I enjoyed it! The story is narrated by Thom Rivera and he narrates both Gloria’s and Patricio’s perspectives. I think he did a decent job of the female voices and an excellent one of the various male characters.

I got this book in the Amazon World Book Day giveaway this year. I usually get the books set in Latin America and was especially interested in this one. Although the story is set around the same time as the Cuban Revolution, the revolution is not the focal point. The main characters have nothing to do with the revolutionaries and, indeed, the Fidel Castro takeover is more of a backdrop to the tale. That caught my attention.

One thing that surprised me was how much I ended up liking Gloria. From the blurb, I imagined I’d have to find sympathy for some spoilt rich mobster’s wife. The truth of Gloria’s background, however, is far more heart-breaking. She was little better than a child bride bullied into marrying an abusive, corrupt man. Through it all she remains kind, indomitable and willing to risk her very life to find a better reality. Her relationship with Patricio develops gradually and builds with intensity. They forge a bond that spans decades and survives multiple hardships and separations. I love that the story takes us to Spain, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In each place we get descriptions to understand the setting and what the characters feel because of it.

Overall, the story is dramatic, atmospheric and has a very suitable ending. I enjoyed listening to and reading The Price of Paradise. I give it 4.5/5 espresso shots.

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