In the debut novel from Rachel Mans McKenny, The Butterfly Effect, Greta Oto is more a spiny caterpillar than beautiful butterfly. Even though she’s an entomology graduate student, specializing in the winged creatures. She’s not socially comfortable in most situations. Her relationships are off kilter, mostly because of her own tendencies. But McKenny lets us into Greta’s thoughts and her heart, so we understand her more than the people around her.
It’s not just relationships. Greta faces a year that’s not going the least bit how she planned. (Boy, is that 2020 …) She starts an intense Ph.D. research project in Costa Rica, studying glasswing butterflies. Before her research even gets underway, Greta receives a fateful phone call. Her twin brother Danny had a stroke back in Iowa. And at 29 years old, this is a life changer for them both.
Of course, Greta immediately gets on a plane headed home. The research and funding go away and she’s flat broke. Plus, she’s worried about Danny. Did I also mention they haven’t spoken much in the last year? But Greta being Greta, she doesn’t quite know how to manage all this.
Great news—her friend and office mate Max suggests she ask her ex-boyfriend for a job. He manages the University’s Butterfly House, so it’s a good fit for Greta’s skills. Unless you count the inevitable discomfort of working for your ex.
Now that the job situation is settled, Greta needs a place to live besides the nearest cheap hotel. So, she moves into Danny’s apartment with his fiancé Meg. But Meg is pretty much the opposite of Greta in terms of personality. Well really, in terms of everything.
So, you see, Greta is not having the year she planned. And she just has to buck it up and manage. We get that.
I’d be lying if I said Greta was a joy. But she is endearing and relatable, all the same. She loves her brother, struggles with work, worries about where to live. Pretty much like most 29-year-olds. And Mans McKenny knows just how to balance the prickly moments with the sweeter ones.
Greta made me laugh with her awkwardness. And yet there are no tropes here—she is wholly unique in her blend of science, Star Trek geekiness, and self knowledge. Yes, she knows her inclination is to say or do the wrong thing. But that doesn’t stop Greta from caring about her people, being angry when it’s warranted, and growing into a more mature human by the novel’s end.
Having lived with my own neurological issues, I also related to Danny’s recovery process. He’s a music teacher who may never experience music the same way again. And Greta doesn’t know whether to do too much for him or let him fail a bit. That’s a common caregiver concern. Again, Mans McKenny writes the situation like real caregiving feels—not easy but also possible with a little time and adjustment.
Mans McKenny walks the fine line between humor and insight into humanity. She writes a feel-good novel that had me giggling, groaning, and caring about its characters. I recommend this if you like character-driven contemporary fiction with a savory side helping of real life.
Pair with R.L. Maizes’ 2020 book, Other People’s Pets. Or if you enjoy a rough-edges main character, pair this with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. They all remind me of each other in tone, even though each is wholly itself.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Alcove Press, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.