If you’re buying this book to take on holiday, pack an extra bag. It’s huge. The hardback ran to well over 600 pages; we’re talking about a saga here, folks; a looping, swooping narrative that spans generations and almost violent cultural changes. The Butterfly Room is anything but a gentle-winged tale: it’s a great big, magnificent, stonking story of a book. Brace yourselves.
I loved it from the first page. The opening chapter is set in June 1943, where we find ourselves watching a poignant, almost painful, relationship between father and daughter Lawrence and Posy.
Lawrence is a Spitfire pilot, home on leave while he recovers from injuries suffered when he was shot down. ‘Home’ is a bit of an understatement: Lawrence is lord of all he surveys at Admiral House just outside Southwold in Suffolk. The house and grounds are what may pass for a country estate; a gorgeous rural dwelling surrounded by woodland, parkland and meadows. The war that has brought Lawrence so low – temporarily – seems a world away. He spends his days of recovery searching for rare butterflies with his ‘darling girl’, daughter Posy. Her mother tolerates their companionship with a tight smile and barbed comments. She is French, her own country writhing under the Nazi jackboot, and the tension in Admiral House is palpable.
Riley’s description of a summer spent in idle pursuits while the world outside the estate’s gates writhes and burns and suffers is beautifully drawn. She had me from page one. She had me to the end. A stunning, sophisticated, stupendous saga.
After the opening flashback, we find Posy approaching her seventieth birthday. That wartime summer is, literally, a lifetime away. But she is still living in Admiral House; still relishing her beautiful family home. Her beloved father is long-dead, but Posy has built a life for herself without him. She remembers her idyllic childhood, catching butterflies with her father and trying to push away thoughts of his return to do battle in the skies, but the arrival of her own children has given her a potent new reality.
Now, Posy must come to a painful decision. She has spent more than a quarter of a century tending to Admiral House and improving its beautiful gardens, but that time is passing. The house itself is crumbling; the gardens are impossible to maintain. It is time to sell. Time to move. Time to say goodbye to everything that defines her.
And then the past returns to throw everything into chaos and confusion. Posy’s first love is back – fifty years after he left her broken-hearted. Freddie. Can Posy trust his renewed promises of love? And what of her children; useless businessman Sam and younger son Nick who suddenly re-appears after ten years in Australia?
The Butterfly Room is a real Forsythe Saga of a novel; layered, complex, fascinating and, in the end, deeply satisfying. Put your feet up, settle back, and enjoy.