An elegant, eccentric novel of love, loneliness, and lepidoptera.
There’s plenty of clef in this debut novel by noted naturalist Pyle (Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature, 2016, etc.), in which a Yale-educated scholar of butterflies finds himself on a mountain in Colorado among grylloblattids, ptarmigan, and city-fleeing monks in search of—well, himself, for one thing, but also a species of butterfly that has made its home in the world there: “A minute tube of life,” Pyle writes of one nascent representative, “he sleeps on as the world of Magdalena Mountain freezes, solid and pale.” Erebia magdalena is the true hero of Pyle’s nature-rich tale, wanting only a little room to flutter and reproduce in the short span of life allotted to it. Complicating the picture is James Mead, our intrepid scientist hero, who confides to his diary, “All I want for Christmas is a Magdalena,” but who, in the spirit of discovery, has plenty of other questions, too—for one, why Magdalena Mountain bears that name. Answering some of them is the enigmatic Mary Glanville, a medical mystery: She’s survived a long fall off the mountain, has suffered a trauma whose “exact nature…is puzzling,” and now identifies with Mary Magdalene. (“I do not advertise the fact widely, for reasons that will be clear to you if you have ever been incarcerated,” she tells James.) Mary has fled a group home in Denver in a season and place where fresh snow falls on the old slush “like a clean diaper over a dirty one,” and on the mountain she falls in with a community of monks who just happen to bear butterfly-ish names like Xerxes, Oberon, and Attalus. Not all of them are on the up-and-up, leading to a craggy chase scene that would do Zane Grey proud. The story is a touch predictable at moments, but mostly Pyle pulls off some pleasing surprises, and with a butterfly-light touch.
Worthy company for work by other naturalist/novelists: Nabokov, Matthiessen, Kingsolver.