Picks and Pans Review: In the Time of the Butterflies

updated 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Julia Alvarez

Once upon a time in the Dominican Republic there were three beautiful sisters who opposed the dictator Raphael Trujillo. The Mirabel sisters—Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa—were murdered on a lonely road on Nov. 25, 1960, their deaths officially an accident. Known as Las Mariposas (the Butterflies), they have become legends in Latin America.

Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents), who fled El Jefe's regime with her family four months before the murders, has written a gorgeous and sensitive novel in an attempt to understand how these well-to-do, convent-educated young women came to die in the cause of revolution. The narrative opens in 1994 with the fourth sister, Dede, who survived to raise her nieces and nephews and keep her siblings' memory alive. It shifts back to the '30s, '40s and '50s as each of the girls speaks softly in her own voice about her experiences and feelings and so reveals her character. There is headstrong Minerva, who wants to study law at the university; steady, devout Patria; easygoing and obedient Dede; and the youngest, coquettish Maria Teresa.

A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion, In the Time of the Butterflies offers an affecting view of life in Trujillo's Dominican Republic. Alvarez ends with Dede at a reception honoring her sisters. "We are now the playground of the Caribbean, who were once its killing fields. Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?" (Algonquin, $21.95)

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