In chapter two of Jane Rosenthal’s novel, “Palace of the Blue Butterfly,” Lili starts the search for her missing sister, Vivienne.
Anytime someone disappears, it’s terrifying for those left behind, and time is of the essence. But the choice to set her story in a foreign country allows Rosenthal to add even more levels of complexity to her protagonist’s struggle.
The story moves quickly, and is further enhanced by the author’s impressive knowledge of the customs, history and lifestyle in Mexico City. Rosenthal deftly uses the vast cultural differences between the U.S. and Mexico to deepen the mystery and present multiple theories behind Vivienne’s disappearance.
For example, while going through her sister’s personal effects, Lili discovers a wide array of painkillers and tranquilizers in various drawers and cabinets. The addresses printed on the bottles tell her the prescriptions were filled in a sketchy part of town. If this story were taking place in the U.S, this fact — along with sheer number of pills in Vivienne’s possession — might lead the reader to wonder if she is mixed up in the dangerous drug trade. But Mexico is infamous for both its loose controls regarding illicit substances and law enforcement looking the other way, so they might be legitimate. Yet if the prescriptions were legitimate, why fill them in rundown, out of the way neighborhoods?
Another stark difference between trying to find a missing person in the United States and Mexico, is the role of law enforcement. In the U.S., the FBI would work in coordination with local police to put together a search. Mexico has had troubles for many years with corruption within the police force. Thus it makes sense that, instead of involving law enforcement, Lili goes about the process of searching for Vivienne by herself. The burden of discovery falls to her, despite her lack of experience.
To add to the level of complexity, setting a story in Mexico means dealing with a different set of cultural norms. Lili meets a local politician living directly next door who may have clues as to her sister’s situation, but Lili is wary of sharing information with him. The neighbor is an elected official and from all appearances seems to be well-heeled, which leads her to question his motive for living in Vivienne’s ramshackle building. Powerful men in Mexico are given certain allowances that differ from those in the U.S. Lili wonders if he’s married, and this a secret love nest where he comes to conduct an illicit affair out of the public eye. If so, could that mistress be her sister — and is he somehow involved in her disappearance?
With all of the cultural, political, historical and religious differences between the two countries, nothing can be taken at face value. There are questions and mystery everywhere Rosenthal’s protagonist looks, which entrances the reader and makes them not want to put “Palace of the Blue Butterfly” down.
Guest blogger, Jacqui Keady, is a freelance writer and lifelong, avid reader of mystery and romance novels. She lives in Folsom, California with her husband and two dogs.