THE ENGLISHMAN AND THE BUTTERFLY
Oxford fellow and John Milton expert, Professor Henry Fell, suffers from panic attacks and a gnawing fear that what he doubtfully refers to as his existence is much more out of his control than he realizes.
Newly arrived in Boston on an academic fellowship, Fell meets a variety of people who, in one way or another, expose him to true love, true death, and true poetry: the lovely and sharp-tongued Julia Collins, a Ph.D. candidate struggling to survive in a male-dominated world, fellow Brit Professor Geoffrey Hearne, one of the University’s most popular and colorful lecturers, and the rather less-than-popular, equally British, Professor Christopher Moberley, whose vast bulk contains the darkest of secrets.
A coming of middle-age story, a metaphysical parable, a glimpse into literature from the inside-out, ‘The Englishman and the Butterfly’, is a tragicomic look at the differences between imagining a life, performing one, and becoming enlightened to the possibility that there is more to life than meets a reader’s eye.
Writer and high school English teacher of AP English Literature and Composition for the past nine years, Ryan Asmussen has been a Presenter at College Board’s AP Conference (“The Problem of ‘Meaning’ in Literature”) as well as a Reader for the AP English Literature and Composition Exam.
In addition to his writing and teaching, Ryan plays drums, guitar, and piano, sometimes in semi-professional bands, and studies Zen Buddhism. He earned his Bachelor of Liberal Studies in English and American Literature and Master of Arts in Teaching in English from Boston University.
Originally from Newburyport, Massachusetts, he now lives and works in the Chicagoland area with wife Jenny, son Declan, and Boston Terrier Moe.
When asked in a recent interview, what experience he hoped that readers would take away from having read The Englishman And The Butterfly, Ryan replied:
“Difficult to answer this. Ideally, they’ll be transported to a place of their own personal imagining along with the characters, the settings, the ideas, making a world of the work on their own. At the same time, I think this novel, while not espousing any particular ‘message,’ does have something to say, hopefully of value, about life, literature, and the possibilities of a given moment. Honestly, I think there is something almost parabolic about it, as well, although that wasn’t my intention at the outset”
“Love is not the demand of another, nor is it the need of another. It is all-embracing acceptance, is it not?”
“It’s one thing to listen only to yourself and believe in the superiority of your ideas. It’s quite another to look down upon those who don’t share them”
“We exist amidst, within, a multitude of possibilities and all of them point only to the firm certainty of more possibilities”
“At the end of this dream, I will be ravaged by the butterfly, who has grown tired of the cold and demands a new, invigorating warmth”
“The quality of the person will determine the quality of the happiness.”
From the very first sentence of this debut novel, I was captivated by the skilled visual and descriptive use of language, which brought the characters to life and lifted them from the pages of the book, to enact the story before me. The dialogue, with its classical overtones, was clever, detailed and almost artistic in its ability and power to take me right into the heart and being of the individual characters and almost to their very souls, a profoundly touching and emotional journey.
My journey took me through the many and varied landscapes of both the physical and psychological complexities of this disparate and eccentric cast of characters, forced together purely by their shared love of the written word, as their lives become inexorably intertwined, in the clever, deadly, richly crafted and multi-layered story, which Ryan has set for them.
Each of them has ‘baggage’ which they carry with them from their early lives and which will influence their futures, as they are drawn individually and collectively into the morass of academia, three Englishmen and their American ‘butterfly’.
Without giving away too much of the story, the scene is set for a hauntingly lyrical and enchantingly romantic ‘pas de deux’, which quickly incorporates the rivalry associated with a ‘menage a trois’. This strained triangle of uncertain loyalties then becomes squared in the most dark and disturbing way. Something has to give and so it does, in a series of the most tragic, emotional and disturbing events, which all lead the reader to beg the question, ‘in reality, how much influence and control do we, as individuals, actually have over our own destinies?’
This is the one question, which appears to force our main protagonist, Henry Fell, out of his insular and insecure world of panic attacks, self doubt and ingrained parental influences, propelling him into becoming a more confident, self-fulfilled individual, when he realises that the meaning and understanding of life, which he has been so assiduously seeking and worrying himself over, is, after all, as illusive as the butterfly.
But does this transformation actually make Henry a better person, as he appears to blossom and flourish, as those he is closest to at this time in his life, wither and perish. He doesn’t seem fazed or concerned at the brutal demise of his compatriots, or indeed of the woman who opened his mind and heart to the possibilities that life may have to offer him.
So, who or what is the true butterfly … The woman who touches all their lives, sucks them dry like taking nectar from a flower, then moves on to the next unsuspecting victim, … Henry, as he uses those around him, to help him discover his true worth and self, without thought or conscience for the consequences his actions … Or is life itself this creature with two faces, one minute so surreal and peaceful, only to turn in the blink of an eye, into a creature of destruction and sadness.
A truly amazing debut novel, from a gifted poet and academic, this review was one of the most difficult I have had to write and I almost feel that I need to go back and read the book again, in order to do it full justice, particularly the time which Henry spent alone in the cabin in the woods, as I feel that I might have missed so many of the slight inferences and nuances, which Ryan intended me, as the reader, to recognise.
On the other hand, I truly enjoyed ‘The Englishman And The Butterfly’, as both a great story and an excellent piece of descriptive, creative prose, which held me captive from beginning to end.
So what more can either reader or author ask for?
What are your thoughts about the question raised in the book?
‘In reality, how much influence and control do we, as individuals, actually have over our own destinies?’
I guess that if I were being totally and brutally honest, then I would have to accept full responsibility for shaping and influencing my own destiny, although of course it is always much easier and certainly more convenient, to hold somebody else responsible
“Whatever you see around you, whatever holds and loves you, is who you truly are.”
As this book was a review request, a Kindle download was sent to me by its author, Ryan Asmussen, free of charge.
This in no way influenced any comments I may have expressed about the book, in any blog article I have posted. Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a 4 out of 5.