Butterflies and Characters by Liz Hsu – Book Review

Title: Butterflies and Characters (review copy)

Author: Liz Hsu

Genre/Themes: Contemporary YA, Authentic Illness Representation (Lupus), Romance, High School

Blurb from Goodreads

Fifteen-year-old Rayanne Ericson has been having strange health problems: swollen hands, aching knees, and a rash across her face that looks like a butterfly. When she visits her dad in Ann Arbor at the end of summer, she’s admitted to the University of Michigan with a diagnosis of lupus, a brand-new word to her.

Although she lives with her mom in Coastal Georgia, she agrees to stay with her dad for a semester. She’ll have access to better healthcare, and she doesn’t want to give up an opportunity to live with the dad she barely knows.

Geeky, rising senior Charles Wong is a competitive pianist and robotics club champion who’s never had a girlfriend. He’s known Ray her whole life—his mom and her dad are best friends, and seeing her so sick is frightening. The new sadness to her penetrating blue eyes pulls Charles to Ray in the weeks before school in attempts to draw out her disarming smile.

There is a growing appeal to Charles, who can generate laughter on even Ray’s worst days—days she can no longer run or draw, her two favorite things, because her joints are too inflamed.

Yet Charles is pegged to be this year’s valedictorian and is striving to get into Caltech, one of the most competitive schools in the country. Ray starts to wonder, even if her feelings are reciprocated, if she’ll ever be anything but a distraction. As she pushes back her plans to return home, she must learn to manage her unpredictable illness as their growing attraction becomes impossible to ignore.

**The heroine has lupus, as does the author.**

My Review

I so desperately want to give this book, Butterflies and Characters, five stars. Because this is an #OwnVoices for chronic illness representation YA novel. It’s the kind of book that teenagers with chronic illness need in their lives. It shows that yes life changes when you get diagnosed with a chronic illness but that doesn’t have to mean that you are no longer you. Doesn’t mean that you no longer have the same needs and wants. And importantly shows that chronic illness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a cute love story with a hopeful ending.

There’s so much good in this book and as an #OwnVoices reviewer for chronic illness representation I am aching to give it my highest rating because I want to amplify the voices of those like me who live a life marked by chronic illness.
But sadly I have to be true to my own tastes when it comes to the literary aspect of the book and admit that there was a lot here that left me cold.
I’ve previously read a New Adult book by this same author which I enjoyed a lot more. With a New Adult novel I feel there are certain narrative choices that are expected from the reading experience so I was less concerned with issues of prose in that instance. But here, I felt that much of the book read like a pamphlet rather than a novel. This might sound strange but there was almost too much focus on teaching right from wrong in the novel.

Let me try to further explain.

The main character Rayanne was too perfect. She had no flaws. She spoke up on racial microagressions, issues of consent and agency, spoke about religious and personal freedom… And all this is great. These are things that we should read more about and speak out on. Rayanne is exactly the kind of person our society needs because she cares about inclusivity, equality, diversity etc so I completely applaud the intentions behind creating a character such as this. However, there’s a better way of writing this kind of character as in this instance there was no subtlety in the framing of her character. The writing was simply too heavy handed.

This same issue applies to Charles who is the other main character in this book. The novel is written in chapters that alternate between Rayanne’s and Charles’ perspectives. Charles again is perfect. He is studious, cares about family, cares about how Rayanne is seen as more than her disability etc.

Maybe I’m projecting my own experience with chronic illness here but I felt that the author wanted so badly to write this perfect book for teenagers coping with illness (much in the same way that I as an adult wish desperately for YA novels that I think can help teens make sense of their illness afflicted teenage years in ways that I didn’t) that maybe she tried too hard to be perfect. Tried to cram all of the things into the one novel.

The illness representation was fantastic. The feelings that Rayanne and her family experienced re such felt authentic and sincere. But everything else just felt clunky and awkward. This book needed a less is more attitude.

Personally I would have loved if the book was only from Rayanne’s PoV. Because then we could’ve gotten deeper insights into how she was coping with her illness. As I said earlier the illness rep was fantastic but I would have liked to have had more light and shade with her emotional reaction to becoming ill. The book was just too neat and tidy for my personal taste. I wanted moments of anger and grievance… but again, is this me projecting my own experience with chronic illness because I was a very lost and angry teenager at times. That’s one of the greatest difficulties with being an #OwnVoices reviewer for an #OwnVoices novel. No two people ever experience anything in the same way. And therefore no one person’s interpretation of a given experience is the definitive interpretation.

So I’m here left feeling rather confused by my feelings. I know that the writing wasn’t to my personal taste but I was still shaken to my core by much of what I read. It cut deep emotionally. And any book that can touch me like that surely deserves praise.

Therefore I think I’m going to give this a three star rating over all. And I’m giving a recommendation that if you do want to read a YA book with an authentic representation of being diagnosed with a chronic illness then definitely check this out.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me via Booksprout for honest review*

Published February 2021

Other Works by Liz Hsu I’ve Reviewed

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