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The Butterfly Lampshade

Review

The Butterfly Lampshade

It’s been a decade since Aimee Bender’s last novel, THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, so I don’t remember it too well at this point. But what has stuck with me is its bittersweet emotional undercurrent, as well as the singular imagination that she displays in her many short stories. I was excited to learn that Bender has a new novel out this year. THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE appears to pick up some of the themes of her earlier work, while losing none of the wonderful weirdness of all of her fiction.

When Francie was eight years old and living in Portland, Oregon, her mother --- who always had been a bit unstable --- finally had a psychotic break and had to be admitted to a residential living facility for treatment. Her closest relatives were her Aunt Minn and Uncle Stan, who were expecting a baby at any moment and lived in Los Angeles --- which is where Francie moved, during a memorable few days that in many ways have shaped the rest of her life.

"Woven through with unexpected images and unexplained phenomena, Bender’s novel is a moving meditation on choosing a positive future while acknowledging the circumstances of one’s past."

Eighteen years later, Francie still lives in L.A. and now visits her mother only occasionally. She is doing better than she once was, but is still in an assisted living facility. Francie has just resigned from her job at a picture framing store, instead devoting herself to her surprising talent for finding hidden gems at yard sales, polishing them up, and selling them on eBay at a sizeable markup.

Francie has a close relationship with her cousin Vicky, that newborn whose arrival defined her own journey from Portland to L.A. Vicky is applying to colleges and has chosen to focus her application essay on her admiration for Francie, who has overcome so much. Francie is a bit overwhelmed by this gesture, and as she and Vicky look ahead to another transition, she finds herself reflecting on the circumstances that brought her to L.A. in the first place.

Vicky, whose passion is the technical elements of theater, helps Francie build a tent on her balcony. There, Francie retreats and begins to recall the strange events of those days, gradually coming to realize not only how surreal some aspects were but also how much she was enveloped by the kindness of strangers.

Francie has lived her whole life in fear of becoming like her mother, or worse --- mentally ill, imbalanced or even violent. In THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, readers discover, along with Francie herself, the ways in which her childhood experiences both do and do not define the adult she has become. Woven through with unexpected images and unexplained phenomena, Bender’s novel is a moving meditation on choosing a positive future while acknowledging the circumstances of one’s past.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 31, 2020

The Butterfly Lampshade
by Aimee Bender

  • Publication Date: July 28, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385534876
  • ISBN-13: 9780385534871