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Iron Butterfly
It is the summer of 1982, just before the fall. The political campaign ad of It’s Morning in America has not yet aired, but the present era of cultural hedonism has already dawned. Against this backdrop, Edward Bennett is the All-American son of a mother who emigrated from Italy and a first-generation Italian American father. Edward has it all: good looks, pedigree, and the financial fruits of his father’s business empire. As he readies for his junior year abroad in London, however, something feels amiss. He does not understand the overprotectiveness of his mother, Marie. He vows to solve the puzzle by finding her native town in southern Italy that she herself has refused to revisit. Ultimately, the journey triggers Marie’s suppressed memory of her cruel beginning, which she and her family can either confront or continue to deny. Iron Butterfly is the second installment of The Mezzogiorno Trilogy. The series recounts the upwardly mobile odyssey of a fictional New American family in the 1980s, the Bennetts. Iron Butterfly precedes in its entirety the already critically acclaimed The Autumn Crush, the saga of the arraignment and capital murder trial of Edward’s father, due to be re-released in 2022. The third in the trilogy, Sarapiquí, will be launched in 2023, telling the story of how in the wake of his father’s trial, Edward inherits a cattle ranch in the rainforests of Costa Rica where he struggles with his fidelity and his faith. As a postscript to Iron Butterfly, the reader is treated to a third-party commentary that psychoanalyzes what the work reveals about the author.
Pulsing with feeling, haunted by the past, Anselmi’s novel—the second in a trilogy charting one Italian-American family’s journey in the 1980s U.S.—finds a young man confronting the mysteries of his immigrant mother’s youth. Edward “Edge” Bennett, a student at the dawn of the Reagan era, flies to London to study economics, leaving behind the States and a mother, Marie, who weeps if he gets home an hour late. On spring break in Italy, Edward visits Marie’s remote hometown, despite her insistence that he shouldn’t. In the dusty village Edward discovers he knows little of his mother’s past, though he turns up clues that she must have faced significant trauma as a child. Later, back in the U.S., Marie jolts the family with her story.

Anselmi anchors the psychological inquiry in the bildungsroman, capturing Bennett’s chatty camaraderie with other students, his growing out of his illusions, and a pair of sexual encounters, one inconclusive and one not—and both laden with symbols connected to the story of his mother. The crisp, often lyric prose (in Rome, at the Forum, Edward “[relishes] its hues of conquest and faith”) tells the story with swiftness and power while always suggesting deeper meanings. While the themes and structure echo Faulkner, with urgent family secrets revealed to a young man over full chapters, Anselmi’s touch is light and inviting.

Occasional perspective shifts inside diminish the novel’s urgent focus, and early passages detailing Bennett’s relationships outside the family are so engaging that readers will likely be frustrated at those characters’ later absence. Marie’s tale of a childhood in a village occupied by the Nazis is harrowing but told with sensitivity. A final section, faintly reminiscent of Nabakov’s Pnin, finds a new character analyzing the novel itself through the lens of psychoanalysis, a revealing choice that highlights everything singular about Anselmi’s approach: Here’s rich, resonant fiction written with a welcome sense of play.

Takeaway: This lyric, incisive novel finds a young man discovering his immigrant mother’s harrowing past.

Great for fans of: Nino Ricci’s Where She Has Gone, Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-