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Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

#34: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley:

Willow Villa was, as Miss Cool had said, orange; the kind of orange you see when the scarlet cap of a Death's Head mushroom has just begun to go off. The house was hidden in the shadows beneath the flowing green skirts of a monstrous weeping willow whose branches shifted uneasily in the breeze, sweeping bare the dirt beneath it like a score of witches' brooms. (p.135)


Synopsis: Hyperintelligent 11-year-old girl solves murder in 1950s England.



Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a genius. She excels at chemistry, pranking her sisters and solving murders. This last we find out in this first book in a new series, when she stumbles over a dead body in the cucumbers and, when suspicion falls on members of her household, determines that she will find out whodunnit.

I'd love to follow little_tristan's noble example of only being positive about the book but, you know, I'm not going to. But what I will say is this: overall, I enjoyed the book and will definitely read the second one in the series, The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag.

Bradley's writing is technically flawless and overall has a quality of dewy deliciousness that made even my slog through the first part of the book somewhat enjoyable. I dogeared at least a dozen pages with passages I really adored; this is unbelievably lush and flowing writing.

I also found it completely amazing that Bradley admitted, in the book's appendix, that he'd never visited England at the time he wrote the book because the depiction of 1950s England is sunnily impeccable. I did catch a couple of word-choice missteps (like Flavia donning a sweater rather than a pullover) but I can almost attribute those to editorial decisions. Like maybe he had the right word in the first place but his editor shook her head sadly and reached for Mr. Red Pen.

And, like tristan, I *adored* Dogger. He's melancholy and lovable and broken. Also? I slash Dogger with the father BIGTIME. I know, slash goggles ftw.

For most of the book, I really didn't care for Flavia at all. She is an unlikeable protagonist, sure, but she's also interesting enough to carry the book through, what with the sunny setting and Dogger and Buckshaw and Gladys The Bicycle and the cook. I think the intent there was to write a sleuth in the mold of Harriet the Spy, Anastasia Krupnik and Millicent Min*. That nearly worked. The problem is--and all three of those other girls have unlikeable qualities to them, let's admit--is that Flavia sounds about nineteen (and way too many people treat her that way) and has no discernible flaws and less humility.

In this way, she's closest in temperament to Millicent Min, but while Millicent learns, if not humility then at least that she's lacking in humility, Flavia learns nothing over the course of the book. I don't felt she grew at all as a character and definitely not as an eleven-year-old girl.

Other quibbles: the interaction between Flavia and Mary, the barman's daughter, was utter twaddle on toast. As one of the doomed Lisbon sisters says in The Virgin Suicides, "Obviously, doctor, you've never been a twelve-year-old girl." The fact that Flavia's being written by a seventy-year-old man is nowhere more obvious than there.

And what's interesting to me is the sequences where Flavia's riding Gladys, her wonderfully charismatic bicycle around the back lanes of the county did sound incredibly authentic, age-wise. Now, whether boys feel the same way about bikes as girls, or at least, tomboys do, I cannot speak to.

Also, the whole sequence where Flavia's father unburdens himself to her and conveniently vomits up thirty pages of vital backstory? Poppycock. Pure, unadulterated poppycock, and the bit where he calls her by her dead mother's name made me throw up in my mouth a little.

And finally, the whole ending sequence was ridiculous. My disbelief, which had been a bit wobbly up on its lonely high-wire, rolled its eyes and did a triple back-flip into the safety net.

It's not that the villain so conveniently unburdens himself to an eleven-year-old girl (after all, everyone else does and besides, if the films of James Bond have taught us nothing else, it's that Inappropriate Unburdening to Your Prey is a sophomore-level class at most schools of villainy) it's that Flavia is so steely-eyed and courageous and plucky and--look, if there was anywhere in the book for her to display a chink in her armor, it would have been there. Trapped in a dark and inescapable place, bound and gagged and alone for hours on end, it would have been much more believable for her to have even the tiniest little breakdown, rather than being so unflappable. Between that and her cocksuredness after her episode at the boys' school, Flavia crossed the line from "heroine" to "sociopath" for me.

Now, again, that doesn't necessarily make this a bad book. I liked the Greek chorus of Ophelia and Daphne, Flavia's sisters. I adored Dogger, as noted, and liked Miss Cool and the terrifying librarian. And the quality of the writing is fantastic. I mean, take this, for example:

I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont. (p.5)


It's vivid and visual and stunning, yes.

But is it something that an eleven-year-old would think? Discuss.

*Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee.
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