Robert Olen Butler is an author that I have never read from before despite him having sixteen novels under his belt. Perfume River is a book about the past. Robert and Darla are a comfortable married couple. They met when Robert returned from the Vietnam War, but today their marriage has lost much of the passion that it was built upon. They have both mellowed with age, but the secrets Robert has carried with him since the war have really taken their toll on him and his relationships.
The Vietnam War missed my family completely. My family members were either too old or too young to take part in much of the controversy and, being from the middle of nowhere, big things like this often pass us by without much fanfare. I mention this because I believe the book would have meant more to me if I had a stronger connection with the Vietnam War. However, I did find the book to be engaging and thought provoking nonetheless.
I will say this: Butler knows how to write characters. I was impressed by the interactions between his characters. The dialogue is quick and sharp. The smallest actions the characters make are written down and carry a lot of extra meaning. Darla and Robert frustrated me because I could read their actions “correctly,” but they seemed to miss important things in their interactions with one another. They miscommunicated like real people and made a good case for why communication in a relationship is of the utmost importance. That being said, I always felt like an outsider. Even though I spent a lot of time in their heads I didn’t feel like I knew them completely. There was a distance that made me feel like I knew them as acquaintances, but nothing beyond that. Perhaps this distance was intentional as many characters– despite being close family– often kept one another at bay.
This is a novel where not a whole lot happens. The action happened years ago for Butler’s characters, but they are still dealing with the consequences today. Although I found many parts of the novel and its writing to be impressive, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted. I am sure other people would enjoy it much more than I did, but it wasn’t quite for me.