Cygnet by Season Butler
Published by Harper
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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The narrator of Season Butler’s debut novel, Cygnet, is known as the Kid. She’s 17 and her parents have dropped her off at her grandmother’s house on an island off the coast of New Hampshire to live while they try and get their lives together. It’s supposed to be for a few weeks, a month at most, but three months later, the Kid’s grandmother has died and she’s never heard from her parents. Not an ideal situation in the best of circumstances, but the girl is known as the Kid because Swan Island is owned, run, and populated by senior citizens; the youngest person there is in their late sixties. The community is a response to the obsession with youth in America so Kid and anyone like her is not welcome. With her grandmother gone the clock is ticking as to how long she can stay before she’s forced back to the mainland. And where are her parents?
Cygnet’s premise is a fabulous one and debut author Season Butler uses it to its maximum potential. With her grandmother gone, Kid is now saddled with making a living while fending off questions about when her parents will be back. She takes a job with a wealthy woman obsessed with rewriting her past. Kid spends eight hours a day, five days a week going through family photos, movies, letters, and diaries, and digitally reconstructing them to give Mrs. Tyburn the life she thinks she deserved. It’s fascinating, disturbing, and sad. Gone is her chubby daughter, her unfaithful husband, her flat chest. They’re replaced with a slender girl, a boat named after her and not her husband’s mistress, and a bust that undergoes multiple iterations until landing on a D cup.
Unfortunately, Kid also has to take the abuse for society’s treatment of the elderly. Swan Island is an upside-down world and Kid is talked over, ignored, reminded she has no place there, and no real life experience. Everything around her is foreign—the slang, the music, the references—so she is constantly on the outside of the conversation. No one has time for her. She tries to fit in with suggestions to make things better or easier but it backfires.
Everyone’s silence pools around me as Johnny’s meaning starts to sink in. That things are supposed to wear out, that it’s not a problem we have to solve, or a process that needs to be stopped in its tracks like something out of a commercial for wrinkle cream that makes looking like an old lady sound like the worst thing an old lady could ever do. Wearing out doesn’t mean something is broken. It means it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
As someone approaching the point where I feel invisible to the world this aspect of Cygnet feels oddly satisfying. It’s something we should all have to go through when we’re young, except Kid’s life with her parents was much the same way. She was a cute appendage, but at best she received benign neglect.
Throughout Cygnet Kid dips her hand back into her past, giving us vignettes of parents who were more interested in finding fame, the next get-rich-quick scheme, or getting high. Even though these memories border on abuse to those of us who grew up in more normal families, Kid is young, alone, and living amongst people who, for the most part, don’t want her there, so they’re tinged with longing. She still believes that her parents will come back for her. She checks her phone for messages and searches for them online and it’s heartbreaking.
Kid is a type I always fall hard for in my fiction: quiet on the outside, maybe a bit tough, but teeming with life on the inside. Butler writes her so well, all cool and grown-up, while inside she’s a lonely little girl. And while her character holds Cygnet together Butler also beautifully portrays a marginalized community not often seen in fiction—the elderly. At least not seen on their own terms. Swan Island is filled with people, humor, and ideas as varied and unique as found in the real world and Butler is to be congratulated for that. I loved this quick bit of a novel for striking all the right notes and wish, when the time came, there was a Swan Island.
We’re all going her way. We are, not you. We’re not all going to suffer from dementia, of course, but we are dying of old age, in our own ways, in our time. We’ve all come out here to die, for ten or twenty or forty or sixty years. Who knows. This place has a purpose, and it’s not your purpose.