I realize that my very strong adverse reaction to The Fall of Butterflies had nothing to do with so-called "manic pixie dream girls" and everything to do with the trap of writing clichés. That's what the MPDG was intended to call out. So let's check out this book.
I have a feeling that a lot of people will love The Fall of Butterflies. At the beginning, I was hooked on the narration. She's got this rapid patter of narration that bounces from one topic to the next, but always coming back to the monumental nothingness of her life in What Cheer, Iowa, and her prospects of going out East to a posh boarding school. Wait, who's "she"? Oh, that's just one of the quirky bits: our narrator "forgets" to tell you her name until several chapters in. It's Willa, as in Cather. Which I think is an awesome name, but Willa, being exceedingly jaded, is embarrassed by it. Because it's super-cool to be all gee-shucks about yourself as a female character.
Oh, and just to tick off all the boxes of quirkiness, Willa is also going to commit suicide.
Hold the phone.
This is a plot device that I hate. Unreservedly. Suicide is not glamorous, or funny, or "a way to make your character grow." It's pain. And to have your main character blithely talk about killing herself disrespects everyone who has died by suicide, and those affected by suicide. I wouldn't mind it if this were a deep, psychological examination of mental pain or depression or ED or whatever leads a person to that point of considering self-harm or suicide. But it's not. It's just part of what makes Willa "quirky." And that's wrong.
Oddly, Willa abandons her brilliant two-part plan, which was "1) Move to the East Coast. And ... 2) Kill myself), when she arrives at the fancypants boarding school. Here, she encounters a vision: "REMY. All caps ... First, she's got a plaid miniskirt on. No big deal there. It's a uniform. But she's wearing it with leg warmers. Those are not plaid. Those are striped. Horizontally! In rainbow colors! ... She's got on a pair of books, but they have this like ethnic embellishment up the side, like Mongolian or something. Then ... And here is the kicker. She has a tie coming down like she is a boy. And braids. With a ribbon wound through them. A rainbow ribbon."
Now, I understand Remy is from What Cheer, Iowa, and didn't go to a big school. But ... wearing leg warmers and a tie are not, you know, that radical. I get that she's at a school with a dress code, but still. Not a big deal. Plus, Willa is entranced by Remy's smoking habit. And although she claims "I'm not stalking her," the level of obsession attained from one interaction is creepy.
I started skimming once Willa started classes, because by then her vaguely funny narration had become insufferable, and I realized that she wasn't witty, she was just mean. And hey, I like books with so-called unlikable characters as much as the next librarian, but there's a big difference between, say, Willa and Regina from Courtney Summers' brilliant Some Girls Are. Regina knows she's a mean girl. She knows other people think of her as such. And yet, I felt for her because that label of "mean girl" meant that when she needed help, people refused to give it to her, even when assistance was merited. Willa, on the other hand, floats through life thinking she's too cool for school and disparaging everyone. Everyone. And the book seems to think this is ... cute. That Willa is better than Remy because of what happens.
I would now like to share with you some choice quotes from Willa's repertoire of zingers.
On anaphylactic shock: "Headgear Girl is pretty low maintenance. And, honestly, Peanut Allergy Boy is, too. other than the fact you have to make sure there are no nuts anywhere near him, even, pine nuts, seriously." Um, peanut allergies and tree nut allergies are two separate things. Peanuts, as smartypants Willa should know, are legumes and not true nuts. It's possible that the young man with life threatening allergies whose name Willa never deigned to learn is allergic to both, but still. You can Google that stuff.
Willa lists "get molested by a Kennedy" as something that happens to people when they move to the East Coast. I don't find that funny.
On California: "Sending somebody to California to get sophisticated is like sending someone to the Krispy Kreme to lose weight." First of all, weight-shaming is an automatic black mark. Secondly, I've never heard anyone say "the Krispy Kreme," unless that's an Iowa-ism. Thirdly, there is one Krispy Kreme in Iowa, and it's in Des Moines. I doubt What Cheer had a Krispy Kreme. You cannot speak of Krispy Kreme unless you have partaken of the Krispy Kreme.
On Chicago's Union Station: "There's vaulted ceilings and pillars everywhere, eggshell-colored but not dark enough to be beige. This is the kind of place you imagine Al Capone shooting up." Yes, that is the color of marble. A light cream color. What the heck is "eggshell-colored but not dark enough to be beige" but a garble of words? Secondly, um, have you seen The Untouchables? Al Capone, shoot out, famous scenes done in Union Station (although Al Capone isn't the one shooting, to be fair)?
And then there's Paige, the white African-American Literature major who is "also an expert in African dance. What is it with these people and African dance?" Willa also asks if this "possible cultural appropriation is ludicrous, endearing, or absurd." Um, I'm pretty sure cultural appropriation is never endearing. But wait! At the same time, Willa snarks on Paige's looks: "I can only assume Paige was named Paige because when she came out into this world she was the color of paper. PS: She is just as thin." Oh goody, more body shaming.
On how men in charge causes war: "Lookit, you'd never see a lady Hitler. I'm serious. No way. She'd be too busy trying to figure out how to run Germany, how to make sure she doesn't get ousted for having lady parts, who to invite to her kids' birthday party ... I know what you're thinking. What if she doesn't have a husband or boyfriend? Well, my friends, then lady Hitler would either be single with another huge laundry list of single-lady problems to worry about, or she would be a lesbian. And I think we can all agree that lesbian Hitler would not exterminate nine million people."
My head hurts. What? I am a single lady. I do not think I have a laundry list of "single-lady problems." I just have ... human problems. Also, why are the choices miserably married, miserably single, or lesbian?
But anyway, I the book is about her unhealthy relationship with Remy and having a sort-of boyfriend and ... stuff. I skipped to the end and ... that was that. It's the story of an obsession with what I would have called a "manic pixie dream girl" but who is really just a conglomeration of all the "different girl" tropes literature has collected as time goes by. And I was not going to suffer through Willa's self-indulgent, pat-on-the-back aren't-I-funny narration.
I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss. All quotes may be subject to change.