The Butter House Sarah Gerard book review
book review

Book Review: The Butter House

THE BUTTER HOUSE by Sarah Gerard is a meditative exploration of the meaning and significance of home. Check out what Erin Britton has to say in her book review of this Conium Press novella.

The Butter House

by Sarah Gerard

Genre: Literary Fiction

ISBN: 9781942387190

Print Length: 70 pages

Publisher: Conium Press

Reviewed by Erin Britton

A meditative exploration of the meaning and significance of home

Sarah Gerard’s The Butter House is a dreamy and contemplative novella that explores the evolution of the concept of home and the intersection between the lives of humans and animals. Through the vividly drawn thoughts and experiences of the nameless protagonists, Gerard considers the importance of place to identity as well as the influence of external happenings on an individual’s interior world.

A young couple seek to escape the confines of the city and so make the move from New York to Florida. They arrive to find “the house smiling in the afternoon. Creamy yellow, one story, with a ruddy roof.” The girlfriend is taking a break after completing her graduate psychology studies, aiming to physically and mentally recuperate from life in “the big, smelly, loud, expensive, dangerous, filthy city,” while the boyfriend is interning with the state’s wildlife agency, observing and documenting the white ibis population. 

As the boyfriend busies himself with his work, the girlfriend dedicates her time to settling the couple’s two cats into their new environment and to tending the garden in order to improve the human environment too. She also spends an increasing amount of time observing the neighborhood’s stray cats, thinking up names and backstories for them and considering the possibility of adopting one or more. At the same time, she worries that “domestic animals are little more than props on the sets of their owners’ lives.”

The Butter House is a deceptively slight book that addresses surprisingly weighty matters. While the girlfriend’s internal monologue suggests that the couple left New York for practical reasons, Gerard drops heavy hints that their relocation might have been due to something less tangible. There are definite indications that the girlfriend has been suffering from something more serious than simply modern-life-related malaise. Depression, perhaps?

She immediately recognizes the literal and metaphorical lightness associated with their new living situation, although she doesn’t appear quite ready to engage in the level of introspection required to understand her internal struggles. Still, Gerard does ensure that certain moments of reflection come through: “with no immediate job offers, and no license to practice in this new state, she has discovered within herself a shocking lack of disappointment. In fact, relief. Plus confusion. Plus fear.”

Rather than thinking too deeply about such matters, the girlfriend seeks to occupy her mind with mundane tasks such as gardening and musing about her feline companions. However, the fact that “she feels a surge of maternal affection” when interacting with the latter is a clear sign that she is opening up to the possibility of their family growing, and Gerard draws a nice parallel between the couple starting to nest and the nesting of the birds that the boyfriend tracks.

The Butter House is very much a cat person story, with the surliest-looking neighbor being presumed to be a dog person, although Gerard cleverly tempers the feline adoration with wry remarks about the natures and motivations of cats:

“Hinting: this supposed kitten is older than her size suggests, and can take care of herself, and doesn’t need to be adopted into their care. Her small size isn’t due to youth but rather to many hardscrabble years and clever adaptations. One of which, likely, is emotional manipulation. Being cute on purpose.”

Such observations are a great way of widening the appeal of the novella beyond those who enjoy all things cat and injecting some extra humor into the story.

Gerard also does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of the house and its immediate neighborhood. The couple’s new residence is perceived as bright and freeing by the girlfriend, and she does her best to take steps to protect and even improve it. Yet, the contrast that she mentally draws with the unknown and perhaps dangerous (for cats) neighborhood is another indication that she is not quite well, that she is building metaphorical barriers to protect herself.

The Butter House is a charming and surprisingly thought-provoking exploration of the myriad possibilities that domestic life can offer. It is a brief but impactful story that muses on the potential of building a home and a family while also demonstrating the profound humor that can be found in day-to-day life.

Thank you for reading Erin Britton’s book review of The Butter House by Sarah Gerard! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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