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Thirteen-year-old Ariella Coyle, known as Plum, is unhappy with her changing body, her spotty face, and her feeling that her friends are growing up faster (and more successfully) than she is: "She has always been more mocked, more misunderstood, more sidelined." As the youngest child, Plum views her two older brothers as both role models and total mysteries. She's convinced, though, that her upcoming 14th birthday is going to change everything, that it's going to mark the start of a new, brighter beginning.

Sonya Hartnett perfectly captures the conflicting feelings that mark the confusing territory between childhood and adulthood: "She's stricken with sudden nostalgia for the life she's been so eager to pack away, she wishes there was some way of being everything at once --- grown and sure and clever, young and protected and new."

Alienated by her family, confused and sometimes overlooked by her school friends, Plum finds a new friend in an unusual place. Next-door neighbor Maureen Wilks is in her 30s and the mother of a young child. She is gorgeous, confident, easy and comfortable in her own skin --- everything Plum is not. Maureen's sudden interest in Plum might seem odd and suspicious to readers, but Plum --- who is in many ways young for her age --- is flattered by the attention from the beautiful older woman. Prompted by Maureen, Plum starts asking to be called by a different name, Aria, and begins to try to redesign herself into a different sort of girl.

As Plum's birthday slumber party approaches, complicated undercurrents come to the surface. Harnett's story, which starts out focusing solely on Plum, broadens to include the perspectives of Plum's family members and of Maureen herself, slowly transforming the novel into something both broader and sadder. Plum imagines that her growing up will consist of a physical transformation, of emerging into the world a beautiful, strong butterfly. But, as she learns about the secrets and betrayals that surround her, as she gains new courage and uncovers her own strengths, it's clear that her metamorphosis will be both more subtle and more profound.

As with Hartnett's previous books, BUTTERFLY, with its lyrical language, mature themes and focus on adult characters, is best suited for mature readers. Although it lacks the fiery intensity of earlier novels such as SURRENDER, BUTTERFLY nonetheless delves deep --- sometimes painfully so --- into the emotional lives of its characters, showing readers surprising reserves of strength, unexpected cruelty, and the resilience of youth. In the end, Plum can embrace the place where she stands, on the border of adulthood, because being in that place means that she still has time. Maureen, on the other hand, feels the opportunity for transformation slipping away: "Routes close, options shrivel, and it all happens without fanfare, simply day following day --- until, suddenly, life is no longer pliable, and becomes like a frieze on a nursery wall, the same thing over and over." Plum might feel young and powerless, but she still has the power to choose --- and change.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 24, 2010

by Sonya Hartnett

  • Publication Date: August 24, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • ISBN-10: 0763647608
  • ISBN-13: 9780763647605