Agnes and Honey live in a religious commune in Connecticut. The two girls grew up together and were always best friends, but the last couple years have driven them apart. Agnes has become obsessed with perfecting herself and living like a saint: fasting, using a waist-string to hurt herself, sleeping with rocks in her bed, etc. Honey, on the other hand, is shunned by the commune and wants nothing more than to escape from it. When Agnes’ grandmother comes to visit unexpectedly, she discovers one of the commune’s most dangerous secrets and takes the two girls off the compound, where all of their lives will change.
Oh my. This book was fantastic. I expected it to be good. I recently read The Sweetness of Salt by the same author, so I already knew Galante wrote well. This story ended up being even better than I expected, though. It was extremely intense. And disturbing. And heartbreaking.
Galante herself apparently grew up in a religious commune, and drew in part on her experiences to write this book. I do admit that before I knew that, I worried about what could end up being in these pages. The words “religious commune” are synonymous with “dangerous freak-show” in the minds of many people. It’d be too easy for a book about a religious commune to come off as biased, judgmental, and inaccurate. But with the author having lived in a commune herself, she is able to show exactly how a community like this works and how/why its members can believe.
I don’t know if all religious communes are dangerous and scary. Of course, that’s all we hear about on the news, cults like the Branch Davidians or the FLDS. I do wonder, though, if there are peaceful religious communes out there that don’t have power-hungry leaders and brainwashed members. The Believers in this book are definitely dangerous. They certainly have a power-hungry set of leaders and brainwashed members, including Agnes. Even so, I don’t come away from the book thinking what awful places communes must be. What I come away thinking a lot about is this: Does the creation of a commune lifestyle necessarily lead to this sort of dangerous situation? Or can a commune retain a peaceful, non-brainwashed existence that holds on to a shared belief, just like a church can do outside a commune?
Obviously, I don’t have an answer, but it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I finished this book. The story itself is wonderful. I love watching Agnes in particular, how she learns and how she interprets the world. There is no easy severance of a whole lifestyle. It’s not like her grandmother can just take her off the compound and Agnes will magically be relieved to get away. It’s not like that at all. It’s very realistic and very scary, what happens to these kids. Up until the very last page I was holding my breath and hoping please, please, please that they would be okay. The Patron Saint of Butterflies was both powerful and thought-provoking, the perfect combination for an excellent book.