Reviewed by Emma Crowley
What magic is this?
You follow the hidden creek towards a long-forgotten house.
They call it Keepsake, a place full of wonder ... and danger. Locked inside the crumbling elegance of its walls lies the story of the Butterfly Summer, a story you've been waiting all your life to hear.
This house is Nina Parr's birthright. It holds the truth about her family - and a chance to put everything right at last.
I have been a fan of Harriet Evans books right since the beginning and especially enjoyed last year’s release A Place for Us and its follow up short story A Winterfold Christmas. Now Harriet takes on a new journey to a special, mysterious place which holds numerous secrets that have been passed down from generation to generation. This unique house Keepsake and its grounds are very difficult to find as the house prefers to remain hidden from the public allowing its residents both human and flora and fauna to flourish unnoticed by the outside world. But now the time is coming when Keepsake must reveal itself to someone who had no idea of its existence or the significance of the news she is about to hear. Nina Parr is about to discover a story/family legacy that has affected the women of the Parr household for hundreds of years and now she must be the one to put history to bed firmly for once and all or either embrace what so many struggled to cope with long before Nina was born.
The Butterfly Summer is a complex novel and shows how Harriet Evans writing has certainly matured and developed since her debut novel Going Home way back in 2005. I feel the author is moving into the more serious side of women’s fiction as her stories are becoming more in-depth whilst tackling current issues relevant to women in today’s society. These books haven’t the will they, won’t they factor between a man and woman at their centre coupled with usual fun and frolics which have become the norm in women’s fiction. No just as readers who have been with Harriet from the beginning are maturing so too is the author’s writing. In this case I will admit to finding the first half of the book very slow and at times hard going but once I made it through this section the book picked up pace and I found it much easier to keep track of everything that was going on.
The novel does move back and forth in time but in the beginning we met Nina Parr in 2008 on a day which didn’t start off too great and seems to get a bit worse as the past starts to rear its ugly head. Nina works in an office and finds the work tedious and boring. Her ultimate dream was to become a teacher but that never materialised but her love of books has never vanished as she spends lunchtimes ensconced deep in the National Library. This gives Nina a chance to get away from everything and immerse herself in another world for an hour at least. A chance encounter at the library with a woman sets in motion a series of events that will leave Nina’s life changed forever. Nina feels a connection to the library as her father had left her a lifelong membership to this place where Nina feels safe. I say left because Nina never knew her father – George Parr died on a jungle expedition to the Amazon which was researching rare and unusual butterflies. So Nina was brought up by her mother Delilah in a house split into flats. Her mother was not like other mothers and although Nina did have a good childhood the loss of her father and at times the emotional absence from her mother has left her feeling a longing or empty feeling deep inside. Coupled with this fact Nina is also dealing with her divorce from Sebastian, they met at UCL and theirs was a very quick romance that developed into marriage but one that didn’t last. Sebastian makes appearances now and again throughout the book but I didn’t warm to him at all and I found myself rushing through pages where he was featured. Nina clearly still holds some sort of flame for him but she can’t deal with it and pushes him away but this is not the crux of the story as there are far more important aspects to be focusing on. Initially you get the feeling that Nina is at a point in her life where something has to give the ties of the past particularly in relation to her parents are preventing her moving forward and she is at a crossroads where the decision she makes will determine the rest of her life.
Nina is also still missing the enigmatic woman who lived in the top floor flat of their house Mrs.Poll. Mrs.Poll was there when her mother was not she told her stories, cared for her and treated her like a daughter. A book called Nina and the Butterflies holds a special place in Nina’s heart and will be forever associated with Mrs.Poll. There is not a lot you can specifically say about this story without giving away crucial plot points. Surprises are thrown in when you least expect it and what you believed to be true you find yourself questioning at every corner. The author made excellent use of the past as an aid to explaining circumstances and events in the present and how characters came to be who they were or why they acted as they did. There was one character that shall remain nameless who just came across as an utter wimp with no guts or strength of character at all. This person was almost like a puppy wanting to do its best to please their new owner but the actions of said person in my mind left an awful lot to be desired and I felt Nina was too ready and willing to accept an explanation that was weak and which has led to unnecessary suffering.
The book had been moving along at a slow enough pace for me as there was a huge amount of setting up to do and then all of a sudden an event turned everything on its head and finally we got to the heart of the matter and I began to take more of a an interest in what was going on. Nina discovers there is a legacy, a heritage to which she has a right to as she is near to turning 26. Nina hears of the house Keepsake which is now rightfully hers, the question is does she really want it and all that it brings or is she happy to meander along in life a little bit lost and not quite happy with everything going on? Nina wasn’t a character that I especially warmed to, I felt she expected all the answers to be there right in front of her fairly straight forward and requiring no thought process. I wanted more of an element of discovery and uncovering the past on Nina’s part. It felt too dragged out in the present and bits of Nina’s so called journey went over my head. In my mind the story only got going when the past began to come to light.
The Parr family obviously have a deeply held connection to the land around Keepsake and to the building itself, we are taken back in time to the very first inhabitant around the time of Charles II. Initially I thought are we going too far back in time for it to be relevant to the story but it gave the reader the sense of how important Keepsake was. It was almost like a fairytale interwoven with Nina in the present day. Thankfully we didn’t stay stuck too long around the time of Nina’s first ancestors and instead we begin to read the story of Teddy and finally the story came to life for me and I can say I was truly riveted.
I won’t divulge much more but truly Harriet excelled in telling the story of a woman who tried to break free of the conventions and rules placed upon her by Keepsake and her history. A woman who suffered through her actions even if what she did was truly for the best. Here too Harriet dared to include a storyline that many authors would be afraid to tackle but it was beautifully handled in a sensitive way without being in your face. I really wish Harriet would write a book set solely in the past as this element of the book was far stronger than the present. Nina’s story didn’t grip me where as Teddy had many layers to be unfolded and I just wanted to read more and more of her and the people she meets and why she acted in the ways she did. Nina appeared to be floundering the solid definitive answers I wanted her to find seemed endlessly out of reach. Elements of her story towards the end became too wishy washy for me there was a lot the reader was expected to summarise or fill in for themselves. I dislike having to read between the lines or at times like with this story I felt I had missed out on parts or they had gone over my head. The book required an awful lot of concentration to keep everything straight in your head and it wasn’t easy to do this the entire time of reading. The few surprises thrown in I will admit were excellent as I hadn’t seen them coming, the wool had truly been pulled over my eyes.
The Butterfly Summer is a good book but it wasn’t my favourite by Harriet Evans as it took too long to get going. The second half was far superior to the first and that’s what kept me reading. Yes Keepsake is a magical place but maybe the magic didn’t do its work on me as much as it should have done. None the less this would be a good read for the summer months and I will be interested to see in which direction Harriet Evans will next take her writing.
Many thanks to Headline books for sending me a copy of The Butterfly Summer to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.