Butterflies in November

Butterflies in November

All stories, the saying goes, fit into one of seven basic categories: overcoming the monster, a rebirth, rags to riches, a journey, etc.

This quirky and funny novel combines the last two of these element in an Icelandic travelogue that is utterly delightful. 

A young woman’s husband leaves her for his work colleague, not only that but the two lovers are expecting a child any day, but the soon-to-be ex keeps coming back to his wife for more of their joint property and yet another bedroom tryst.

The narrator (the characters are mostly unnamed) works as a translator of 35 languages. She is fine with these end-of-marriage conjugal visits although she finds them rather odd, and when she runs over a goose, she decides that she must make her departing husband a last grand meal.  Creatively, she concocts a sauce to hide the tread marks.

The thirty-something narrator also had a boyfriend who broke up with her until her marriage situation got resolved. When he hears about the upcoming divorce, he demands that they go out for dinner. 

Instead, the translator tells him to meet her on the ice where she lures him near a part of the pond that is ice-free.  After several scary turns over cracking ice, he grabs her and insists she start dating him again.

It’s then the young woman decides that she needs to get out of Reykjavík.  After all, she can work anywhere and she needs time to reflect on her personal life and decide what to do next.

While packing the remaining things in their house and doing her ex’s laundry (she’s pretty easygoing), she receives a phone call that she has won a lottery, a mobile home, that she can have set up anywhere in the country.  She chooses Iceland’s east coast, the small town where she spent every summer growing up with her Gran and a countless number of cousins, two of which may have abused her.

Her ex’s list of her faults include: never showing up on time, not wanting to have children, and keeping secrets from him about her earlier (and present) life, but one good trait about her is that she never says no to a lottery ticket—more to help her friends and colleagues than with any hope of winning.

And though luck never strikes twice, supposedly, she also wins a large amount of money which she stuffs into the glove department before leaving town.

Meanwhile her closest female friend, Auour, who is six months pregnant, brings take-out over to cheer her up about the divorce. While the translator is buying salt at the supermarket to de-ice the walk before her apartment, her best friend falls and is rushed to the hospital.

But this is good luck, Auour says, because they discover that she is carrying twins and needs to be on bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy. Auour begs the narrator to take care of her four year old son, since she has no one else who can.

The translator tries to get out of this—she knows nothing about kids, has no affinity for them, she’s leaving on a journey, etc. but Auour pleads and says Tumi can go anywhere and won’t get in the way.

So the next day nearly blind and deaf Tumi jumps in the backseat and they stop at a pet store. Tumi wants a small furry creature to take on the trip but the narrator via exaggerate lip movements and rudimentary signs tries to explain why this will not work out. Eventually, they leave the store with three goldfish.

Did I mention that the narrator is taking her summer holiday trip in November and that a butterfly had been flying around her kitchen when her ex was telling her the reasons he was breaking up with her.

What happens next? Well you’ve read Candide. Lots of life-affirming adventures all made new in this mountainous, ravine-filled, rainy country. They ride over countless single-lane bridges and through lava-enriched, farming country, past volcanoes.

Over and over again they meet up with an Estonian choir that is also touring Iceland.   Alas, the goldfish don’t make it, but a kitten stolen from a farmer whose sheep the translator accidentally does.  Later, they meet a kind man whose pregnant dog who gives birth to puppies and young Tumi is thrilled with his furry friends.

What a rollicking ride full of romance and quixotic events. The narrator not only discovers herself, but also learns she can take care of another. You will love this charming read, and whether you have been there or not, feel as though you have travelled through a fascinating country.