The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

This was May’s V&A Book Club choice. I was looking forward to it, as I do enjoy a bit of gothic suspense, and this promised to have lashings of both from the blurb on the back cover, plus it offered the opportunity to learn about the art of lepidopterists, or people who study moths, to you and me, which you don’t get the chance to do every day.

It started promisingly. Set in a tumble down Victorian mansion deep in the Dorset countryside, the novel opens with Ginny, the narrator, standing at the window of the only home she has ever known, waiting for the sister she hasn’t seen for forty odd years to arrive. Ginny is now elderly, and hasn’t left the house for several decades. She is of sound mind, or so we assume from her perfectly normal narration, and this reluctance to be part of the local community or to leave the safety of the mansion’s crumbling walls can reasonably be put down to some form of eccentricity, or social phobia. What cannot be so easily explained is why Ginny’s younger sister Vivi is returning after so long. No cataclysmic event seems to have taken place, and Ginny offers no explanation as to what can have compelled Vivi to want to come back. Indeed, Ginny doesn’t even seem to know. Vivi’s impending arrival prompts a reverie from Ginny of their idyllic childhood at Bulborrow Court, a once fine Victorian folly originally owned by their beautiful, vivacious mother Maud’s family. A clan of typical Victorians, one of their greatest passions was moth collecting, and it was this collection their shy and retiring lepidopterist father Clive had come to study when he first set eyes on Maud. This match of wild opposites was one of deep love and tenderness, and spawned two children as diametrically opposed in personality as their parents; the shy and awkward Virginia, and the outgoing, fearless Vivian.

Ginny and Vivi, as they have always been known, were inseparable throughout childhood. Unusually, Ginny was the adoring follower of her bold, popular sister, whose affection she desperately sought. Nothing counted for Ginny unless Vivi was there to share it with her, and even as a child, she was aware of her deficiency and her mother’s lack of connection with her in comparison to her vibrant, clever and witty sister. When they are young there is a terrible accident involving Vivi falling from a disused tower in the grounds of the house, and as a result, she loses her reproductive organs (yes, very symbolic). From then on the balance in the family changes, as it appears Maud believes it was no accident, and that Ginny pushed her sister. The girls are sent to school, and there their personalities become even more marked, with Ginny always being singled out as odd and Vivi always being surrounded by a group of friends, enchanted by her. After school Vivi leaves for London, to live a life more exciting than Bulborrow Court can offer, and Ginny unquestioningly stays behind to take on the role of her father’s apprentice.

Much then follows that would spoil the plot if I told you about it, and then Something Shocking happens that totally changes the way the book is (I presume) supposed to be read and then The End, with no explanations offered for anything. It started well enough, setting the stage for an intriguing and darkly plotted story of sibling rivalry and skeletons in closets, but somewhere around the middle it all begins to go wrong. There are too many red herrings thrown carelessly into the pot, too many loose ends and far too many possible lines of interpretation. Characters do things that are wholly out of line with their portrayed personalities, and ‘secrets’ and ‘lies’ that are unveiled are about as hard to see coming as a penguin in a day glo jacket walking down Oxford Street. Unpicking the plot at Book Club, we could only come to a satisfactory conclusion of why what happened happened if we took wild guesses as to the reasons why certain elements of the story had been included, and you should never have to do that with a book, I think. I don’t mind a few loose ends, and an ending that is open to interpretation, but the problem with The Behaviour of Moths is that there is too much room for interpretation, as nothing is really explained and characters aren’t developed well enough for you to read into their behaviour with any degree of certainty.

I raced through it; it is a suspenseful page turner, I have to admit, but then when I reached the end I felt completely unsatisfied and really quite annoyed with it. It was lazily plotted, in my opinion; a good gothic novel contains many veins of possible inquiry but they are all cleverly tied together, leaving the reader with several eureka! moments by the end and, on occasion, the odd loose end that leaves you wondering or guessing when you close the pages, which is perfectly acceptable and actually quite enjoyable. It enables the story to stay alive in your mind for a while after you’ve stopped reading, as you continue to puzzle over the events that unfolded. The great Sensation writers like Wilkie Collins know how to do this well. Poppy Adams doesn’t. In her attempt to weave a story that leaves the reader guessing, she just creates massive plot holes that can only be plugged by extravagant surmising. I know Ginny is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, but it really is no fun at all when a novel leaves all the available conclusions to be drawn by the reader, as no satisfaction can be drawn from such an uncertain outcome. In short, I was highly disappointed, and even after pulling apart the story with my fellow Book Club members, I’m still unconvinced by the events that unfolded. With a few tweaks here and there, this would have been a much better book, but for me, as it was, it just didn’t come up to scratch I’m afraid. I’ll be sticking with the original Sensation novels in future!

32 comments

  1. It’s been quite a while since I read this, but I actually thought it worked reasonably well. The ambiguity of it was one of the elements I think I liked best. It hasn’t, however, really stuck with me, so my memory of the specifics is vague.

  2. I read this book a year or so ago. In the States it was published under a different title (something with the word SISTER in it, I believe). I share your sense of being underwhelmed. One of the main problems I had with this book was that it did not “play fair” with the concept of the “unreliable narrator.” I love books with unreliable narrators, but writers have to be very skillful as to how they drop the clues that let us know the narrator is, indeed, unreliable, and I don’t believe Poppy Adams accomplished this. Yes, we realize early on that Ginny is not telling the truth, but we never really learn what Ginny has (some form of Aspergers Syndrome?) or why she is the way she is. (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT) During a key scene in which Vivi talks to Ginny about why she (Ginny) acts the way she does, Ginny simply goes into one of her fugue states. When she emerges, Vivi has finished talking. The reader NEVER learns what Vivi was saying. That was extremely frustrating. I enjoy a book that slowly drops its clues and uncovers its revelations, but when a writer simply chooses the easy way out, I can’t find too much of a positive nature to say about it.

    1. You are so right Deb! You summed up the unreliable narrator thing far better than I did. Not enough clues were dropped and also not enough solutions were given, such as the moment you describe. A mystery needs to have some conclusions to make it a satisfying read, and I felt nothing was concluded by the end. The clues that were given were so vague and unsubstantiated that you really couldn’t come to any definite conclusions. Most frustrating. I’m glad you had the same experience as I was beginning to think, from all the positive reviews out there, that I was missing something!

  3. Oh, I think this is called The Sister in America, and I keep getting it mixed up with this other book called The Condition where (I think) one sister has Turner’s Syndrome. I am always sadder when Gothic-sister-dark-secrets books are disappointing, than books of genres I don’t care about. How dare they let me down? (is how I feel) :p So I sympathize.

    1. Gothic sister books should never be disappointing! I hate the way titles are changed in different countries. What, because Americans will think the book is about moths and therefore not buy it? Publishers have a really low opinion of their readers!

      1. This is a serious annoyance for me too. What ever are those people thinking of to “transelate” a book title, or as I found the other day a brand of makeup into something else. Do they actually think American’s are stupid? I find it insulting and patronizing. It is especially irritating given the internet and how people are managing to reach across the countries and understand each other perfectly well. Well, that’s this American’s diatribe for the day!

  4. What an honest review of a book that did not live up to expectations. Most of the time our book group picks great books that lead to great discussions. Sometimes, well, sometimes it just doesn’t work, and I think that is good, too. It helps us to be more discriminating in our choices. It sounds as if you had a rather lively discussion. A good thing, no matter how disappointing the book. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Penny! In its favour this was an excellent book for discussion, as it brought out much frustration in us poor readers! This isn’t something I would normally have picked up, either, so it is good to push yourself outside of your comfort zone too from time to time.

  5. I didn’t enjoy this one either though it certainly sounded promising. I also thought there was too much unnecessary information about moths.

    1. Glad you agree, Astrid! I actually found the moths part quite interesting (the rest of the book group said I was weird for liking those bits!), but the bit where the caterpillar gets eaten alive was quite disgusting!

  6. I completely agree with your opinion of the book – I read it earlier this year and was pretty disappointed. Ended it feeling like I must have missed something because felt, like you, completely underwhelmed. Such a shame because it the basic idea had far more potential…

    1. It did have a lot of potential as a story, I agree. I do wonder whether overzealous editing has been the culprit here. All the bones for an excellent mystery were there, but no flesh was ever put on them. Most unsatisfying!

  7. Speaking of books about moths I recommend A Girl of the Limberlost. It’s not a perfect book but it is a good example of regional Americana from the actual time period, instead of a historical recreation and has really beautiful descriptions of moths in it. You could read also Freckles, by the same author (Gene Stratton Porter) about the same region. It is a far superior novel, but not quite as “mothy.”

    I love the original title of this book (The Behavior of Moths) and would have picked it up for that alone! The American version is as bland as the book, apparently. I wonder if the unnecessary descriptions of moth behavior is an unsuccessful attempt to explain the sisters behavior. I sort of want to read it now to see how the women compare to the moths…

    thanks for another really thoughtful book review!

    1. Traci, I have never heard of those books before. You have intrigued me and I will check them out! I am trying to read more American fiction of late as well so that definitely suits my reading goals!

      Yes well, Ginny does behave very much like her father believes moths to behave – she is instinctual, not emotional. However, she is quite emotional really, so I don’t quite know what the author was driving at. My general reaction from the book, really!

  8. Oh bugger! That makes two of us who have had the promise of a good story ruined by an unsatifactory ending! Though I do think that I’d like to try this one on for size one day as it keeps popping up and I feel out of the loop.

  9. I had to go get it, even though it was one you didn’t like. : P I was fascinated by the opportunity to read another moth book.

    So…on reading it with a particular eye to the extraneous Moth info, I noticed that the author focused on three or four main moth situations: 1: cannibal moth siblings, 2:the parasitic moth that destroys the ant home 3:parasitic flies that plant their eggs in a caterpillar and eat the caterpillar alive from the inside out and 4: the radio active moth that led to the discovery of moth flight patterns.

    My personal opinion is that she is a sociopath, killed her sister’s pig, tried to kill her sister etc. and then obviously, well, you know. I think the moth sections were clues to her condition…a cannibal, feeding off of her family for her own purpose, a parasite (emptying the home the way the fly empties the caterpillar) poisoned like the radio active moth by something inside of her, and like the moth that let the ants fatten her up eventually destroying the ants nest, legacy, what have you she was only aware of her own place in the world, nothing else mattering at all, eventually driving her mom to drink, driving her father crazy and what all else.

    I think sociopath because she did seem unemotional about the beatings from her mother…they weren’t anything more than attention in her mind and she didn’t even care about the baby until something like 50 years too late…sex held no interest even when she was having it…and she watched her sister fall (even if she didn’t push her) with no particular interest in catching her. She was emotional about her school days, but it was remarkable to me that it was because she wasn’t getting any positive attention at all…

    anyway, not the best book ever but I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure it out. : D

    1. Hi Traci… thank you for your thought provoking interpretation… you have filled in that empty, and a little lost, feeling I had after reading this novel.

  10. Gosh Traci! You’re so clever! I didn’t pick up on any of that! I love your analysis…you’re making me want to re-read it, even though I didn’t enjoy it, just so that I can read it in the light of what you’ve said!

    I think you’re definitely right about her being a sociopath – I love how you have compared her behaviour with that of the moths – it makes a lot of sense. She never really has a life of her own – she feeds off others and is rotten somewhere at the core.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful exploration – I need you in my book group!

  11. Coming to this late, but I completely agree with you, except I didn’t even find it compulsive reading… I loved the premise, but the structuring and the ending just didn’t work at all for me.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one, Simon! Definitely a bit of a disappointment, though I’d read a second book of hers when it comes out to see if she’s improved on where she fell down this time.

  12. Coming to this VERY late – but I’m glad you felt the same way about the Something Shocking! And your review (and many of the commenters above) raised numerous points I hadn’t thought of but definitely agree with.

    1. Very late indeed, Yvann! But never mind! The discussion can continue! I see from your review that you very much liked the book. I did too, until the Something Shocking happened! I just wish it hadn’t have been so ambiguous! Months later, the ambiguity still makes me angry!!

      1. I had saved your post as a recommendation and was then able to comment when I’d read it! Anyway, yes, the ambiguity. For me it wasn’t so much the ambiguity, although now that you/someone else above mentioned that we never get the reason for Vivi’s return, that does seem strange… it was just that there is absolutely no reason cited for the Something Shocking, and it’s not something one does for no reason!

        But I found the unreliable narrator device quite cool – this is one of the first books where I’ve noticed it before I got to the end! and was therefore second-guessing the narration for a while, so that was quite fun.

  13. I was quite disappointed with this book. It had all the elements of a story that I normally enjoy but I found the ending disappointing and the descriptions of moths and lepidoptery too numerous and distracting.
    I enjoyed the authors style of writing and would attempt to read another book if/when another one is published.

  14. I am struggling with the book. I’ve read the first third and it started off OK but now I’m skip reading it as I am frustrated by the first person narrative. I think that Ginny’s condition ( possibly Aspergers) and her persective limits both the development of character and plot. There is a real lack of warmth in this book.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Dee! It’s a tough book because it just doesn’t really convince unfortunately – and yes, Ginny is a difficult character as we don’t know what to believe. She’s not a well developed unreliable narrator and there is just a sense of it being unpolished. Definitely not a keeper!

  15. I only just read this book – on a recommendation from my book group. It was disappointing for all the reasons you gave. There are passages that are intriguing and well written, but I couldn’t understand who or what Ginny was exactly supposed to be. I don’t think Adams did either. She wasn’t autistic, not in the sense I understand. She was socially inept. She was self centred and weird. But she was also incredibly insightful and her narrative was so polished… well it was ideal for Book at Bedtime, wasn’t it. But no, it didn’t add up at all…
    http://thomasquinn.blogspot.com/2011/07/behaviour-of-moths-by-poppy-adams.html

  16. I really enjoyed the book but cshould say I listened to it on audio book. The reader captured the frigid eccentricity of Ginny perfectly…her tone of voice supported the character development to the very end. The moth metaphor provided me with sufficient cerebral exercise long after the discs were returned to the library.

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