In a richly imagined literary sequel to Puccini's Madama Butterfly, we follow Benji, the illegitimate offspring of the tragic geisha Cio-Cio-san, to America with his conflicted father, U.S. Navy Lieut. Frank Pinkerton, and resentful new wife Kate.
Davis-Gardner, who in her novel Plum Wine (2006) wrote of an American teacher in Tokyo unraveling the stories of Hiroshima survivors, returns to Japan to envision a string of surprising events following the belated reappearance of Pinkerton, the suicide of Cio-Cio-san and the adoption of Benji as an "orphan." Raised on an Illinois farm, the intelligent and resourceful boy adjusts to his new life and culture, but is abused by kids for his unusual blond looks and censored by Kate for speaking or acting Japanese. Clinging to memories of his mother, a photo of whom he keeps hidden, Benji dreams of returning to his native Nagasaki. With the help of a kindly adult friend, and a stranger who proves to be a horse thief, he escapes to San Francisco, where another sympathetic man helps him gain passage to Japan. In a bold metafictional stroke, Davis-Gardner has a new opera called Madama Butterfly open in Chicago, with characters named Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-san and Benji. Other plot twists await as Benji finds his own romantic match, Pinkerton sinks deeper into regret, remorse and alcoholism, and Kate slides into insanity. For all its jolts and its exposure of dark social and cultural truths, the novel is told with control, precision and emotional understatement. In its way, it holds its own alongside the modern Western masterpieces of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. For all its melancholy and madness, it strikes themes of hope and renewal, and believing in the unbelievable.
A haunting and lyrical follow-up to Madama Butterfly.