The Butterfly Tattoo by Philip Pullman

NOTE: This book is also published under its previous title, The White Mercedes.

Title: The Butterfly Tattoo (The White Mercedes)
Publisher: Pan Childrens, 2001
Length: 160 pages
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


Chris falls in love with Jenny the moment he sets eyes on her at an Oxford ball. She's beautiful but secretive and he can't help but want to be with her. But fate is cruel and, as their relationship blossoms, tragedy and violence wait in the wings. Chris's boss has a shady past that won't stay hidden. And his ruthless enemies will use two innocent teenagers to exact their revenge on him ...

Wow. What a reading-filled weekend I had! I finished up Augusta Evans Wilson's Beulah, and then I picked up the short novel The Butterfly Tattoo last night and finished it. Neither book is lighthearted reading material, and, for fans of Philip Pullman, don't pick up The Butterfly Tattoo and expect to get the same story as The Golden Compass (though there are similarities in theme between that book and this one).

This book is considered to be YA, but I wonder if it doesn't fit in the adult category better. Labeling something as YA today obviously sets the reader up for certain expectations. This book is dark without being hopeful. Cynical without offering a sense of peace at the end. As the blurb above states, it is the story of Chris, a 17 year old living in Oxford, England, who is working a job one night at a garden party hosted by one of the Oxford colleges (my best guess would be Worcester, where I get an idea of the grounds, see my previous post here ). While wandering the college grounds, he aids a young woman who is being chased by three students. The implication is that they are going to rape her, and Pullman uses this set up to explore issues about class and privilege. After this chance meeting, Chris searches for the young woman, named Jenny, and eventually the two of them begin a relationship. (For those of you who enjoy your books sweet or at the PG level, be warned that Pullman gets explicit in descriptions about their physical relationship.) Meanwhile, Chris discovers that his boss is involved in criminal activity, and, in a horrible turn of events, Chris's world is shattered once and for all.

Chris is the center of the story in many ways, though Jenny takes on a huge role, too, and readers get to read about her point of view. The novel is really about Chris's awakening to adulthood and the loss of innocence. As expressed repeatedly in the "Dark Materials" novels that are so popular, innocence is dangerous--not beautiful. The last line of this book, however, will leave you stunned and saddened beyond belief after thinking about Chris and his struggles to overcome his naive worldview. Of course, Pullman does a better job getting his point across in the "Dark Materials" books, but the same ideas come through loud and clear in this one, too.

Many people haven't enjoyed reading this book. I saw tons of 1-star reviews on, and I can't help but believe that their strong reactions came from the poor labeling of this books as YA fiction (perhaps even as children's fiction). It might be YA, but it isn't your typical YA. There is not one moment where you will feel all warm and fuzzy, and you won't see any light at the end of the tunnel (esp. considering that last line!). But I think that is the point of the book. It is meant to be a wake-up call to young adults, even. Some readers went as far to say that there was "nothing redeeming" in this book. I disagree. Pullman advocates truth. We may not all agree with his version of truth, but he must be commended for making his point.

I am giving the book 3.5 stars because of the following:
1. Though I enjoyed the book, there were several portions of it that left me a bit bored. I didn't feel as if I needed quite so much discussion of Chris's boss's criminal history.
2. I felt that Pullman, while he did an admirable job with Chris's character, really fell victim to stereotype in portraying Jenny's character. If you read the novel, you will know what I mean.

Still, I am glad I read this book...but don't pick it up unless you  have something to cheer you up right afterwards!


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