by Fiona McFarlane
Originally published in the March 7, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

March 7, 2016I think some people will be thrilled to see McFarlane show up again. When her first New Yorker story, “Art Appreciation,” was published in 2013, many readers here thought it was great (see here). I kept saying I’d read it, but I don’t think I ever did . . . So I still don’t know much about McFarlane’s work. I’m excited to see what people think about this story!

Please leave any comments you have below to get a discussion going!

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By |2016-03-07T12:45:42-04:00February 29th, 2016|Categories: Fiona McFarlane, New Yorker Fiction|9 Comments


  1. Sean H March 9, 2016 at 4:09 am

    First thing I’ve read by this author and I’d recommend it, if only moderately. It’s a thumbs up and well-written, evocative, if a little less than trenchant. I don’t know if it was all that impactful or memorable. These fairy tale-ish ones tend to read as a bit fleeting and ephemeral. That said, it has a potency and is certainly well-wrought in terms of the image. This story pops in one’s head and is rendered rather vibrantly. The turn at the end needed a bit more oomph. It had about it something of the film The White Ribbon but without Haneke’s austere venom. There’s also something about childhood that feels inaccurate in her take on the children’s fascination with one of their classmates; it just rang false and off the mark for the kids to be THAT intoxicated by Joseph (there’s also a bit of an intimation that perhaps the author resents attractive people). Overall, though, I was impressed enough by the prose and the story moves along at a fast clip while alluding to aspects of sociology, psychology and gender without becoming a didactic treatise, and that’s always appreciated.

  2. Greg March 9, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    I enjoyed your positive review Sean! And as for the fascination dynamic, I have experienced that in a group with a beautiful girl. I believe it is due to the fact that young girls are more willing to admit that another girl is very attractive whereas boys would feel that would be ‘sissy’.

    Also, my favourite parts were the teacher’s private thoughts. In particular, I found this one chilling after the boy pulled his stunt:

    “You will solve this, she thought, and suffer for it.”

  3. Dan March 11, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    What the hell even was that? I just didn’t buy any part of it–the teacher’s weird fascination with Joseph, that the students would *all* share that fascination, that a group of kids (age, I’d guess 10?) could be entertained for an afternoon by a game involving hiding a button–and I found it frankly a little racist. While the kids’ names suggest ethnic diversity, only Joseph’s actual ancestry is specifically identified.

    This falls into a genre of stories involving a protagonist who somehow loses track of reality. Typically, you find these set in some warm, foreign city, but a warm afternoon will apparently suffice.

    At least it was short.

  4. Rosalind March 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    When I read this story, I felt that I was at a religious ritual. The button is handled with reverence. Joseph, the class leader has a processional walk and has power over the kids and the teacher. She encouraged this sort of ceremony. Kids love play and games but when the script is changed, they often lose it. Miss Lewis couldn’t save the day.. Joseph, only a boy, alone,proud and terrible controlled the outcome..

  5. Parker March 12, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Not a great story, but an intriguing one– straining a little too hard, it seems to me, for some arcane symbolic meaning at the expense of plot and character development. Reading it, I kept thinking about the similarities to another symbol-laden story, Shirley Jackson’s famous “The Lottery”. Both take place on an idyllic summer’s day in a small town atmosphere– an idealized version of America as it used to be. Only in “Buttony” the object of the children’s collective mind is to “win” a button in hand from the “beautiful” Joseph– not, as in “The Lottery,” to “win” the lottery by losing it and thus avoiding being stoned to death. Still, almost predictably, the dreamlike, fairytale quality at the beginning of “Buttony” gives way to, if not the horrific adult violence that ends the Jackson story, at least a grade-school version of it. Like Sean, I found the ending weak, the teacher’s antipathy toward Joseph and the childrens’ toward the teacher not sufficiently justified by the chain of events leading up to it. But I suppose the story’s strong point (and why The New Yorker printed it)) is the timely allegorical moral it is trying to make: that children in groups, like adults, often get very upset, even violent, when when their idealistic dreams are frustrated.

  6. Greg March 13, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks Parker for your indirect link to this week’s Trump events….let’s hope literature can help avoid needless pain.

  7. Parker March 13, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    Greg: Appreciate the feedback. Your comments are always gracious, concise, and to the point. Would that more so-called literature was such. That in itself would help avoid a lot of “needless pain.”

  8. JIm April 1, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    Another literary source to ponder is Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” which deftly compared a teacher’s hold on students to Fascism (among many of its themes!). The notion of the golden child and the power he embodies seems to be something primal, which the teacher and the students latch onto.

    Of course the golden children (or the creme de la creme) gradually learn to know the truth – that there are no golden children. The golden children can then use that for whatever they may choose. And it is that “choosing” and the fact that there *is* choosing that is terrifying, which really makes this story haunting and relevant.

  9. Greg April 3, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you Jim for this tantalizing recommendation!

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