book review: the butterfly garden

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison
Thomas & Mercer, 286 pp.
Published June 1, 2016

Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.

In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener; a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.

When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.

As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding…

The Butterfly Garden contains pervasive references to abuse, rape, and torture. Please keep this content in mind when choosing to read this review or the book!

When it comes to twisted thrills, Dot Hutchison delivers in The Butterfly Garden! Most of the story is told from the point of view of Maya, a young woman recently rescued from the clutches of a serial killer known only as the Gardener. Through her we learn not only of the chilling mixture of control, sexual attraction, and paternal instinct the Gardener displays towards his captives, but also of a troubled childhood and her tentative happiness as a runaway. This upbringing—or lack thereof—has built a shell around Maya, making it difficult for her to connect emotionally. Her detachment isn't presented as enviable, though, except when used as a coping mechanism during her ordeal. She often speaks warmly of other girls who could summon a kind word or gesture, keeping a gentle heart beating beneath the terror.

However, Maya's overly calm demeanor and refusal to cry elicits suspicion on the part of the detectives, whose perspective clues us in to the investigation's progress. They know that at least one woman, a former captive, helped the Gardener and worry that more accomplices might be posing as victims. Even though we only learn about the investigators in the context of their questions towards Maya, they still feel like fully realized characters. I've heard that the sequels to this novel focus more on the detectives and their other cases, which sounds promising even with their limited role here.

Most colorfully rendered, though, are the girls held alongside Maya in the Garden. With only beauty as a common denominator, each young woman reacts to and copes with her abuse differently. I don't believe The Butterfly Garden is trying to make any kind of point—I think it's meant as entertainment, not a statement—but I appreciate how the diversity of reactions to unequivocally evil behavior in some small way validates that there is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma.

Hutchison nimbly navigates all of the disturbing subject material. Without shying away from the activities of the Gardener or his co-conspirators, she manages to describe their abuse without sinking into lewd details. I would still caution readers to consider their own limits before reading, however Maya's narration of the Garden simultaneously builds a tense atmosphere of horror and lays the foundation for subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of defiance when her captivity stretches on.

In spite of—or perhaps thanks to—the terrors it describes, The Butterfly Garden stands out as a refreshing entry in the thriller genre. While I'll always appreciate a well-spun grimdark tale, Hutchison's hopeful ending makes the preceding ordeals more bearable. The final twist leaves much to be desired and could have been left out entirely, although it doesn't detract from what came before. Maya may earn the label of "unlikable protagonist" from readers who struggle to identify with her detachment; I found her relatable, sympathetic, and engaging. It was her personal plight, as much as the mystery of how she escaped, that kept me turning pages well into the middle of the night. I'm looking forward to picking up the sequel, Roses of May, soon and returning to the twisted, hopeful mind of Dot Hutchison.


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