It has been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. After reading “The Korean Word for Butterfly” by James Zerndt, I would argue that this is not true.
After my inconsiderate review of “The Cloud Seeders,” (in which I’m now almost embarrassed to admit I suggested that had I paid for the book, I would have returned it for my money back, while still stating that I’d still like to read his other novel) Zerndt was kind enough to lend me a copy of “The Korean Word for Butterfly.”
Apparently, there was indeed something about Zerndt’s writing skill that kept me drawn into “The Cloud Seeders,” in spite of an overall distaste for the book. I suffered no similar disappointments regarding “The Korean Word for Butterfly.”
“The Korean Word for Butterfly” is a moving novel that addresses racial stereotypes, relationships, unplanned pregnancy and abortion. Each character is beautifully written and developed with clear motivations, ready to take wing from the page into the reader’s imagination.
The book follows the story of two young Americans, Billie and Joe, who falsely apply to teach English to Korean students, as well as several members of the Korean school system they meet along the way. Each individual character emerges fresh and new from their chrysalis, empathetically formed with a back-story that allows the reader to draw a deep connection. In the midst of Billie and Joe’s short tenure with the Korean school, tragedy strikes Korea when two young girls are run over by an American tank, and they find themselves struggling not only to maintain their charade but to learn how to cope with a new level of anti-American sentiment within this foreign country.
There are brilliant touches of classic irony interwoven into “The Korean Word for Butterfly.” Billie, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and feeling alone in deciding how best to cope with this, unknowingly is drawn to try to befriend the school secretary, Yun-ji, who is also quietly deciding on her own how she will deal with an unexpected pregnancy from a brief fling with an American soldier.
Equally touching is the story of Moon, working at the school and clinging desperately to sobriety in an effort to regain his relationship with his ex-wife and his son.
As the novel reached its climax, and all too soon afterward conclusion, I found myself clinging to the characters, unwilling to watch them flit away.
I would highly recommend this book to those who enjoy classic fiction and are looking for fresh voices, as well as any readers who enjoy fiction on Asian culture. At $2.99, this book is a great buy for the Kindle.
According to Zerndt’s Amazon page, he is seeking a publisher for a third novel, “Where Cute and Crazy Meet at Midnight.” When available, this book will certainly be on my list to purchase. I hope that Zerndt has once again found the intoxicating voice with which he breathed life into the characters from “The Korean Word for Butterfly.”
(The title of this blog post is Korean for “second chances,” according to a Google translation.)