Colleen Coble has become one of my favorite authors. The first of her stories that I read, Tidewater Inn, riveted me and had me up most of the night because I couldn’t set it aside. And the premise of her newest story, Butterfly Palace, had me drooling! “Jane Eyre meets Downton Abbey in Austin, Texas.” What a concept!
And the story was good. Not riveting, but engaging. Threats of a serial killer surrounded by secrets keep the reader from knowing who to trust. There were some huge pluses in this book.
What I liked:
Colleen Coble has a talent for description that transports the reader to the scene. I could smell the food, earth, dust, and body odor. The sparkle and splashing colors of a ball to the damp, dark lower regions of the house, the bustle of the kitchen and back stairs and the lazy, breeze-cooled garden.
Tension in the story came first from her beautiful descriptions. The scenes were as painted with feelings and atmosphere as they were with color and sound. And as to sound, I actually heard the characters in British accents (though I knew they were from Texas) just because of the elaborate descriptions of the Butterfly Palace. I confess, I still can’t hear any of the character with a Texas accent. The hick – and yes I can say that because I’ve lived here and heard it (spoken it) all my life – just doesn’t go with the picture painted on the pages. But that’s the Downton Abbey and Jane Eyre influence.
I loved Lily and Drew. In fact, Lily will stay with me for some time as a favorite heroine. The mark of a great story! She was a nurturer in every sense of the word. She dealt with slights and insults armored with grace. Not seeking fame or even notice, she simply stood. But her very standing, because of her beauty and talent, encouraged notice. And that notice continued to bring unexpected, and sometimes even unwanted, attention and suspicions.
I did notice that the relationships between the staff and the family seemed to stretch the status quo of the time period. The building relationship between servant and employer was essential to the plot, but had contrived moments. The daughter, in particular, ranged from mean to nice to vulnerable to meek with regards to the main character, and not always in that order. Sometimes she jumped from one extreme to the other on a single page.
And one little side note: In this former slave state, only 40 years after the Civil War, the staff should have been filled with former slaves and the children of slaves rather than the Irish and European members that are mentioned. And the Hispanic culture of the area is also entirely missing. Although, this particular critique didn’t occur to me until after I read the story, so it didn’t stop my reading. (Shame on me for even mentioning it!) Truth be known, I liked the supporting characters, too.
What I Didn’t Like:
For all of the positive aspects of this novel, I was a little disappointed. The writing was simplistic with repetitive words and phrases throughout. I was surprised about that. The author has such talent for word-smithing that this work, in areas, seemed more like a rough draft that hadn’t gotten full editing polish.
For example, I think every POV character had gritty eyes from lack of sleep. Some of them more than once. That’s the type of phrase that sticks in my brain when I see it twice. And seeing the same thing three or more times in a single book reeks of … well …. I can’t bring myself to call it sloppy writing. That just sounds too rude. Let’s just say that the story could have used another read-through to catch some of the easily fixed issues that stood out.
Another miss wasn’t so easy to fix. It almost seemed as though this story started out as a mainstream book. In fact, I wondered if the author was going that direction. A hayloft tryst, very natural motivations, and few mentions of God and none of faith until well into the second half of the book.
In the first half, there are only about 5 mentions of God and all of them are full of disappointment. Why did God allow bad things to happen? Though I liked the main character, as I said before, she made no progression from that shallow, questioning faith that she showed in the beginning. Instead, she leapt into a deep-set type of faith with no motivation or ignition.
In final third of the book, without warning, things turn around. She’s sharing her faith and thinking of the Lord all the time. But no black moment or inspiration gave fuel or reason for the change. The hero also, shocked me with some words about God toward the end of the book. He hadn’t struck me as a person of faith at all through the entire story. Then suddenly, he’s showing deep spiritual truths.
In fact, the subject of faith almost appeared as an afterthought. So different from the other Coble stories that I’ve read. I’ve always loved how the essence of a faith-filled character makes a difference in her works, and how the Biblical truths come out from start to end. So I really missed it this time.
That’s not to say I didn’t like this book. I did. I didn’t love this book, though. Certainly not to the degree I expected to. But I’ll definitely read more of Colleen Coble’s work. In fact, I have another book, one of her older pieces, in my reader right now. And I can even recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the spice of a juicy mystery and the sprinkle of suspense with their historical romances.
Your Turn: For good or bad, what was the last book you read that surprised you?