Every now and again, one of “those novels” comes along that catches fire and finds itself on everyone’s must-read list. Put Dancing With Butterflies at the top of your list because Reyna Grande has one of “those novels” in her new release, Dancing With Butterflies. The novel combines excellent writing, compelling characters, and acute sense of place to make its 390 pages pass too swiftly.
Readers of “Los Angeles” novels will notice right away how Grande weaves in geographical details from throughout the region, from Highland Park to Boyle Heights, from Downtown to Pasadena. And her characters sometimes ride the bus, or walk. Street level gente, in other words.
Grande brings four women’s lives into acute focus. Middle aged Yesenia lives to dance. But age and arthritis make painful facts Yesenia’s mind refuses to acknowledge. Adriana harbors resentment at older sister Elena’s escape to college leaving young sister to abusive grandparents. Worse, there’s a dangerous second personality in Adriana who now and again runs wild. Elena is 36 weeks pregnant when she feels the baby die. Mourning leads to disaster for her marriage, made so much worse when she seduces a 17 year old boy. Finally comes Soledad. An undocumented worker, Sol’s costuming mastery sets Alegría dance company apart from competitors. Attempting her return from Mexico, Sol’s coyote abandons her in the Arizona desert.
Each character steps forthrightly onto her time on stage, to stand under Grande’s baleful gaze, but given voice by a skilled writer of conversation. Grande’s writing appears effortless, a tribute to the author’s control of her medium because there is so much one could heap on these women to get themselves right, but instead the characters do their own talking leaving the reader to make sense of the muck-ups and damn shames.
Yesenia steals dance troupe money to buy cosmetic surgery. Just as Yesenia’s TJ bargain tummy tuck goes bad, the dancers of Alegría revolt and the troupe breaks up. Much as Yesenia loves dance and this troupe, thinking her bad behavior the cause of this failure tortures but doesn’t defeat the determined dancer.
Adriana remains in an abusive relationship. She wants to sing, not dance, but because her mother danced, Adriana feels it’s a daughter’s duty to dance. And there’s The Other Adriana, some lurid, ugly tragedy looming ever closer.
Elena’s depression at losing the baby is made all the worse when she feels the opprobrium from family and friends because she has bedded the student. She is stunned when one calls her another Mary Kay Letourneau. Maybe she is? But what’s in it for Elena?
Soledad is about to get her own business going when her partner abruptly changes his plans, crushing her dream into yet one more frustration in her undocumented life. Left to be arrested in the desert, Sol is rescued by a hermit. When immigrants fleeing pursuing ICE agents pound on the door for succor, Sol sees the likelihood of capture if she offers an open door. The choice will haunt the remainder of her life, but she survives to return to L.A.
What’s OK? Can desperation mitigate foul selfishness? Where does the balance tip between reaching out to help others and holding on to help oneself? And when the fulcrum tilts in our favor, unfavorably for others, how does one define the outcome? These are tough questions you don’t have to ask, but are there in the text for the taking. Dancing With Butterflies isn’t going to hit someone over the head with an author’s message. The things these characters go through create ample reason to read, digest, and ask one’s own questions. Then recommend the book to a friend. Dancing With Butterflies is one of “those novels” you’ll enjoy so much you’ll want your friends to enjoy with you.
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