Amy Gail Hansen’s debut novel is impressively deplorable. The ending is not predictable, but this is not to be mistaken for quality, as it is only a testament to book’s meandering plot. Ruby dropped out of her all-women’s college after a botched suicide attempt. “Why would a soon-to-be graduating English major commit suicide?” you may ask. Well, maybe she realized that she had wasted four years of her life on a useless degree that she will luckily pay off by the time she’s 60, assuming she can find a job that doesn’t involve flipping burgers. If, like me, you are lucky enough to have an English degree, I’m sure you can think of many reasons that Ruby may have considered this option. Nevertheless, the true reason was a failed affair with her professor/thesis advisor, which, shockingly, he broke off. When he followed this up by giving her a D on her thesis, it was the final nail in the coffin.
A year later, a mysterious airport employee delivers a suitcase to Ruby’s home. This suitcase does not belong to Ruby, but she had borrowed it from a fellow student at one point, and upon returning it to said student, had forgotten to take off her address tag. Now, she has this suitcase, and after calling the girl’s mother, Ruby learns that the girl has been missing for days. Ruby goes on a trip back to her old stomping grounds to try and find out what happened.
As it turns out, pretty much everyone on campus was sleeping with that professor. AND he gave them all bad grades but THEN stole their papers and used them for his CV to guarantee his own TENURE. The majority of these girls tried to commit suicide after this happened. No one tried to refute the grade or confront the professor, they just went straight for the suicide option. And THEN we learn that another professor posing as the sleazy professor’s wife has KIDNAPPED the suitcase owner because she is pregnant with the sleaze’s baby, and this random professor’s sister aborted Sleaze’s baby years ago before committing suicide, thus random professor does not want Suitcase to abort this baby for reasons that are beyond me. And then there is a happy ending.
That’s an adequate summary of The Butterfly Sister; if you make the mistake of reading it yourself, you’ll be amazed at how succinctly I summed it all up. Hansen is a dreadful writer. I got the feeling that she was trying for a Southern Gothic feel, but the results were dismally amusing. Take, for instance, Ruby’s feelings on her father’s death: “Learning to live without my father was like learning to live without a leg, and I didn’t want to limp anymore.” I know, I know – pure poetry. Or this description of Pittsburgh: “It just sounded like a dreary, horrible place where you could go to have an abortion.” Okay, well, that’s actually a pretty accurate description of Pittsburgh. Hansen at least got one thing right.
The Butterfly Sister casts female English majors as an emotionally fragile bunch, prone to academic affairs, suicide, and abortion. Maybe not in that order. Hansen’s characters are obsessed with Virgina Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Silvia Plath. Apparently, if you attend an all-female college, you’re not allowed to read male authors. It just all feels so clichéd, and it is so badly written that it’s impossible to take the plot seriously; not that the plot could ever be taken seriously anyway. The implication seems to be that studying suicidal writers can come back to haunt you. I read a ton of Milton in college and I didn’t go blind. I studied Mary Shelley too, and my husband hasn’t died in a tragic sailing accident. I guess I could be speaking too soon; I’ll keep you all posted if any of this changes.