Andrea Portes, like so many writers, adheres to the tried and tested tenet of writing “what you know.” What she knows—what she’s lived—just happens to be a great deal more cinematic than average. The twist in her first young adult novel, Anatomy of a Misfit, highlighted that fact. Portes’ latest work, The Fall of Butterflies, underscores it, reaffirming her ability to transform a personal reality that can at times border on the surreal into an acute commentary that’s both universal in its implications and accessible in its meaning.
When Willa, the novel’s teenage farm-raised protagonist, leaves Iowa for the elite East Coast Pembroke School, she didn’t know what to expect. Neither did Portes when she made a parallel journey in her youth. “I came from Nebraska instead of Iowa,” Portes explains, “went to Bryn Mawr instead of Pembroke, but basically, I was this doe-eyed girl from the Midwest taken in by this person who was so magnetic and so incredible and kind of singular. But then, as time went on, it became clear that this person was really haunted.”
Addiction was the specter that hung over Portes’ new, extremely wealthy friend, just as with Remy, the enigmatic it-girl of Pembroke who quickly welcomes Willa into her exclusive (and otherwise solitary) inner circle. “I've had a lot of friends that I've lost to addiction,” Portes says, “whether with pills or alcohol or drugs. I may have mixed a bunch of those attributes into one character, Remy, but that person really does exist. And that feeling fof being in love with your friends and watching them just, fail, that was absolutely my experience.”
Moving on to the topic of drugs, which is the heart of The Fall of Butterflies, an edge creeps into Portes’ erstwhile soft-spoken voice. The conviction and ache with which she speaks of the slow slide into full-blown addiction alludes to the time she’s spent deep in its contemplation.
“Everything starts off kind of fun and exciting,” she says, “and the next thing you know it's almost like a trap. If you're doing something every day, taking a pill or whatever it is, it becomes habitual. And it's hard to break those habits. I find it really disturbing how insidious addiction is, how it starts. People get trapped and they never get to become what they were supposed to.”
As their friendship deepens, Remy becomes Willa’s bridge into the lives of the one percent. And looking at that world from the outside, it gradually dawns on Willa that, in many ways, the privileged space Remy inhabits enabled her fall.
“Willa eventually realizes something—and it’s something I realized as well,” Portes explains, “which is that she was lucky, in a way. She had the kind of life that I did, with parents who were a little bit more present, who had a slightly different perspective on things. Willa finds that she has a strength of character that these other people, like Remy, don't. If I look now at the lives of the people I knew then,” Portes continues, “those people I'm still friends with, I'm so thankful that I came from this world. I'm happy to say, Yeah, I come from Nowheresville. I'm happy to say that now—I'm proud to say it—because I feel like that was something that really catapulted me into a kind of…not ambition, but into the possession a unique perspective on the world. You know, being the other, sometimes it's alienating, but it also makes you really good at perceiving things.”
Part of that comprehension—at least for Willa—is that not everyone can escape their demons. “For so many,” Portes says, “the first instinct is to make everything work out perfectly. You know, in Storytelling 101 everybody has an arc and people change in the end. And some people do change, and that's great. Willa does change. But some people don't, and I think that’s important to keep in mind. Sometimes things don't change. What can change is your perspective. Willa can accept that things are the way they are, however upsetting, instead of being mad all the time. But to expect that everything is just going to work out in the end, that's like a magical fairyland. I'm never going to write that book,” she says, after a pause. “That’s just not me. Ultimately, when you're writing a story, you're reaching out to people. And when you read a story and you love it, it’s because it touched something in you, something human, something real.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.