Author: Kate Ellison
Genre: Contemporary YA, Mystery/Thriller YA
Published on: February 14, 2012
Challenge: Debut Author Challenge
Summary: Penelope (Lo) Marin has always loved to collect beautiful things. Her dad’s consulting job means she’s grown up moving from one rundown city to the next, and she’s learned to cope by collecting (sometimes even stealing) quirky trinkets and souvenirs in each new place—possessions that allow her to feel at least some semblance of home.
But in the year since her brother Oren’s death, Lo’s hoarding has blossomed into a full-blown, potentially dangerous obsession. She discovers a beautiful, antique butterfly pendant during a routine scour at a weekend flea market, and recognizes it as having been stolen from the home of a recently murdered girl known only as “Sapphire”—a girl just a few years older than Lo. As usual when Lo begins to obsess over something, she can’t get the murder out of her mind.
As she attempts to piece together the mysterious “butterfly clues,” with the unlikely help of a street artist named Flynt, Lo quickly finds herself caught up in a seedy, violent underworld much closer to home than she ever imagined—a world, she’ll ultimately discover, that could hold the key to her brother’s tragic death.
THE BUTTERFLY CLUES by Kate Ellison was one of those weird books I encounter occasionally that I enjoy when I’m reading it, but I don’t have a hard time putting it down and wandering away from it, either. It picked up at about the midway point and finished strong, but I found the whole thing really dark and unsettling, and that kept me from really LOVING it. Don’t get me wrong: THE BUTTERFLY CLUES is a good book. There’s just not much here to keep things light, and sometimes that sort of story is hard for me to get really excited about because that kind of heaviness just brings ME down a little too far for my liking. Even Flynt, the love interest from Neverland who is carefree and funny and sweet, although secretive and a little odd, didn’t help much because the fact that Flynt and Lo are wandering around Neverland together just gave me the creeps, always, HARDCORE. So. There’s a little tangent for you. BUT, alllll that said, Kate Ellison still manages to create a story that conveyed the horrible and sad extent of mental illness, and for that reason alone, I’d recommend THE BUTTERFLY CLUES. If you can get past the sometimes overwhelming depression and…just…downer-ness.
I was really impressed right away with the way the writing conveys that fact that something about Lo is…off. She’s frantic and kind of unstable, and her OCD–her need to count things out to certain “good” numbers (like six) and her unease that comes when she encounters a “bad” number (like four)–is in full, raging affect. You feel her scattered mind and her instability. There’s definitely something about Lo that has you worrying about her mental health right away: her thought processes are anxious and highlighted by short, choppy sentences that make her sound almost child-like. Also, she’s a kleptomaniac, stealing random stuff because she’s overcome by an “urge” to take it. The writing in THE BUTTERFLY CLUES, though, really gets these feelings of instability across, especially as Lo’s compulsions get worse as the story progresses.
Most jarring to me, though, was the fact that in the wake of her brother’s death, she has taken to wandering deliberately around random, unknown parts of Cleveland, using her “good” numbers to determine where she gets off the bus. Except good numbers don’t necessarily lead to good parts of town. That she is still learning to cope with her brother Oren’s mysterious death the year before is clear, and Lo goes on these trips because of this compulsion she has to search out the places her brother might have been on one of his runaways from home. It’s on one of these jaunts that she is accidentally present at a deadly shooting in an inner-city area known as Neverland. (Everything about that place gave me the creeps. I’m sure that was intentional, though, so props, Kate Ellison! But Neverland almost creeped me out TOO much. Major heebie jeebies.) Overcome by fear and danger, she runs away to catch the bus home, but still winds up investigating the shooting. Because her OCD and her own hard-to-classify dreams tell her to. Dangerous, weird shenanigans ensue.
Lo vacillates between sounding rational and sounding kind of manic. It’s an unsettling head to be in, and the story itself is dark and sad, which only compounded Lo’s mental illness. It certainly keeps you on your toes, though, and is really eye-opening. Maybe not necessarily the murder, which wasn’t anything complex or overly twisty (I was able to spot the bad guy and suss out the identity of the unknown “Bird” early on, and some of the discoveries Lo makes I thought would have been found by even the most inept police investigator first), but certainly seeing the world through Lo’s compulsions was jarring in a way that’s hard to describe because it wasn’t really bad, but it was…weird. Unsettling. (THAT WORD AGAIN! Sorry, guys. I just can’t think of another that fits.)
I can’t stress enough how alternately afraid for/creeped out by/mildly frustrated with Lo I was sometimes because, guys, she puts herself in MAJOR DANGER, hoards some really disgusting stuff in her room, and has no support system for her OCD and is grieving pretty much on her own. Mostly, though, she worried me because her parents were either absent because of their own mental troubles in the wake of Oren’s death (mom) or deliberately clueless in the wake of Oren’s death (dad). There’s nothing pretty and heart-warming in THE BUTTERFLY CLUES. Well, maybe not until the end.
I feel like I could keep talking about the way I reacted to THE BUTTERFLY CLUES by Kate Ellison, but I’m going to wrap it up by saying this: it started slow, ended MUCH stronger, was written wonderfully, and had characters that at the very least made me have THOUGHTS. About OCD, about people who can’t cope with their own grief in healthy ways, about finding love and companionship in ODD places. I WISH that it had been a little bit more about treatment and taking care of yourself, though. There was very little of that. But I’m glad that I read THE BUTTERFLY CLUES, friends, because it gave me a chance to experience mental illness, and it was POWERFUL.