Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7499-9
Contemporary Romance, 2003
Mary Campisi’s The Butterfly Garden is so overly sentimental and sweet that it makes me fear for my blood sugar levels rather than to make me weep in melodramatic catharsis. It’s not as bad as, say Kimberly Cates’s contemporary romances, but close enough to be just as dangerous to one’s health.
Grace Romano and her sister Jenny are very different. Grace is the perfect housewife with the perfect family, while Jenny is the vivacious and adventurous one that goes around the world photographing things and people. Of course, just like how these stories always go, Grace realizes that her husband is cheating on her – again – with a woman who looks just like Jenny. Before she and hubby can do anything, an accident happens and he dies while she slips into a coma. Jenny rushes back to take care of Grace’s two kids while her mother predictably treats her like crap (why are mothers always like this in this type of stories?). The romance with psychologist Elliot Drake, whom Jenny turns to for help, is actually more like a secondary plot in this story.
For too long this book is all about children acting like sainted martyrs looking precious while turning on the waterworks and saying “touching” things. Things improve slightly when Grace awakes from her coma, but not much. The author doesn’t downplay her dramatic scenes, she turns it up until The Butterfly Garden is a volcanic eruption of sugar waiting to happen. Her characters don’t just mourn the death of Grace’s husband but launch into long monologues questioning “Who will question the children’s future boyfriends?” and other pertinent questions. People cry, surrounded by ripped photographs, and Aunt Jenny runs slow-mo to comfort them even as she wails in anguish – how can she cope? Oh! Oh! Oh!
The sole moment of discord is provided by the obligatory oblivious and insensitive mommy. But romance novel moms are always like that, I guess, they’re always the easiest targets when the author wants a source of conflict.
Nothing rings real in this book. Everything’s too bombastic and melodramatic, the anguish is too carefully crafted in an overblown way, and the author drops her Very Important family value anvils with the subtlety of nuclear bombs raining over a war-torn third world country. Sometimes very human issues like grief and forgiveness are best portrayed in a low-key style that respects the reader’s ability to make his or her own judgments regarding the story. I hope Ms Campisi finds a way to dial down the drama in her future stories instead of turning into another overblown Kimberly Cates.