Because I was not that familiar with the opera “Madame Butterfly” I was well into The Heat of the Sun before I realized that the story is intended to be a sequel to that opera In the opera, young American Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Pinkerton enters into a temporary “marriage” with the geisha Madame Butterfly. Years later he returns to Nagasaki with his American wife to claim the blond-haired child named Trouble who was the result of the marriage. Madame Butterfly kills herself just as the child runs to his father. And that’s the end of the opera.
In this novel, David Rain imagines what happened after the opera ends. Benjamin Pinkerton has become a very influential senator. Trouble has lived up to his name, even though he is officially Benjamin Pinkerton II now. The time is the 1920’s and Trouble becomes fast friends with Woodley Sharpless, a crippled, bookish boy. Sharpless has another friend, Le Vol, who is not enthusiastic about Trouble but is drawn into the story nonetheless. For years, the lives of the three intertwine, separating and coming together time after time only to be pulled apart. The story weaves through adventure, love, loss, political intrigue, and treason until the plot literally explodes on the day of the bombing of Nagasaki. There’s an important ending some years later, but it is anti-climatic in the truest sense.
Rain writes elegantly in this debut novel. A fascinating undercurrent throughout the book is that of unrequited love. Sharpless and Trouble love each other in a way that is beyond mere friendship, and yet they are not lovers. Le Vol obviously loves Sharpless, but again that love is not physical. In fact, this subplot may be superfluous to the novel, and sometimes may slow the main movement of the plot.
Rain’s descriptive abilities are strong, especially in the depiction of the boarding school life and its bullies. This is the most vivid part of the story which, as it advances, shares the sense of detachment from reality that Sharpless, the narrator, feels. The haziness and distance are deliberate but may make the novel less accessible to the casual reader.
Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile and fascinating literary endeavor that should enthrall the reader, whether that reader is familiar with the opera’s story or not. It is indeed operatic in its scope.