Penelope (Lo) Marin has always loved to collect beautiful things. Her dad’s consulting job means she’s grown up moving from one rundown city to the next, and she’s learned to cope by collecting (sometimes even stealing) quirky trinkets and souvenirs in each new place–possessions that allow her to feel at least some semblance of home.
But in the year since her brother Oren’s death, Lo’s hoarding has blossomed into a full-blown, potentially dangerous obsession. She discovers a beautiful, antique butterfly pendant during a routine scour at a weekend flea market, and recognizes it as having been stolen from the home of a recently murdered girl known only as “Sapphire”–a girl just a few years older than Lo. As usual when Lo begins to obsess over something, she can’t get the murder out of her mind.
As she attempts to piece together the mysterious “butterfly clues,” with the unlikely help of a street artist named Flynt, Lo quickly finds herself caught up in a seedy, violent underworld much closer to home than she ever imagined–a world, she’ll ultimately discover, that could hold the key to her brother’s tragic death.
The Butterfly Clues certainly has a lot going on at once: between family issues, an unlikely friendship, and a murder, there is a lot to keep track of. All of these seemingly unrelated threads are captivating in their own right, and Ellis expertly weaves them together in a stunning finish that I couldn’t predict, despite having guessed the identity of the murder early on in the story.
The narrator, Penelope Marin, certainly provides readers with an interesting and unique worldview. Penelope has obsessive compulsive order and, as a result, has many rituals and compulsions that she must live with, including tap tap bananaing before entering a room, saying her name three times, and stealing items whenever she has a negative emotional response to something. Ellis does an excellent job of showing that, despite these compulsions, Lo is very much a normal teenage girl: she feels self-consciousness and embarrassment, and doesn’t know how to respond to a boy who shows interest in her. She’s incredibly easy to relate to, as a result, and her life circumstances (absent parents as a result of her brother’s recent death) make her very easy to sympathize with as well.
While the secondary characters are not as vibrant and intriguing as Penelope is, there are two characters who certainly captured my interest throughout the book: Sapphire, the murdered girl, and Flynt, an enigmatic boy who lives in the rough neighbourhood known as Neverland. As the story progressed, I found myself desperately wanting to learn more about Sapphire, and the bits of information that we learned throughout Lo’s investigation added to that desire. I also quickly found myself enamoured with Flynt, whose lax, light attitude is the perfect foil for Lo’s rigid, structured life. His response to her compulsions only added to my love of him — he quickly accepts them as part of who Lo is, and even goes so far as to touch her shoulder twice more after someone taps her. I really liked their relationship dynamic.
Overall, The Butterfly Clues is a mystery story unlike any that I’ve read before. It’s thrilling, captivating, and provides insight on the human condition in a way that definitely resonated with me. I will definitely be picking up another book by Kate Ellis in the near future.