Jul 30, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

It has finally happened! I’ve read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and you can sign me up for the Flavia de Leuce fan club. As most of you know, Alan Bradley’s novel is a mystery set in the 1950’s, and his sleuth is a precocious, delightful and chemistry-loving eleven-year-old named Flavia de Leuce. Flavia lives with her father and her two older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, at Buckshaw, an old manor where de Leuces have lived for centuries. Flavia’s mother passed away when she was only a baby, while her father has been somewhat withdrawn since his return from WW2. To make matter worse, her two older sisters don’t exactly keep her company, except perhaps in the sense that Flavia devotes much of her time to planning and executing creative and diabolical pranks and thinking up ways to get back to them.

Considering her lonely existence, it’s not surprising that Flavia is much more excited than scared when a dead body is found on the cucumber patch of Buckshaw. Flavia is the one who discovers it, and when she arrives to the patch the red-headed man lying there is still only just alive. She hears his very last word (the Latin word“vale”), and declares the event “by far the most interesting thing to ever have happened” in her life. But the murder investigation isn’t all fun and games. You see, Flavia overheard that man arguing with her father in his study late the night before. The police don’t know this, but she can only imagine what will happen to her father should they find out. The only way she can save him is to make sure the truth is uncovered, and to ensure that the job is well done Flavia has no choice but to do it herself.

And so begins a mystery evolving poison, librarians, old boarding schools, WW2, dead birds, philately, and clever observations galore. My favourite thing about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was probably how very perfect the tone was. Flavia is a wonderful narrator, and her descriptions of her life at Buckshaw create a delightful Adams Family-esque Gothic atmosphere, and with humour to boot too. Add a good amount of historical detail to the mix, and the result couldn’t have made me happier.

Another great thing about Flavia is the fact that even though she’s precocious, she’s not an unrealistic eleven-year-old. She knows a lot about chemistry and poisons of all kinds, for example (and she is prone to randomly yelling, “Chemistry! Chemistry! How I love it!” – how can you not love her?), but there’s also a lot she doesn’t know. She also very often struggles with her feelings, and her emotional maturity doesn’t seem to be quite on par with her intellectual development – which is not at all uncommon for gifted children. For example, her older sisters manage to make her cry by telling her she’s adopted, a classic trick in the how-to-taunt-your-younger-siblings book. Yet Flavia does fall for it, even though intellectually she knows better. I liked these little details, as they made her a much more believable character than she’d have been without them.

I also quite liked the de Leuce family dynamics – there’s a lot going on under the surface, and a lot that’s only implied because Flavia won’t really acknowledge it. She’s often sarcastic and even flippant about what’s going on with her family, but you can sense that there’s often real distress behind her remarks. Buckshaw is a house of silences: this is true when it comes to Flavia mother’s death, to how she and her sisters really feel about one another, to her father’s experiences in the war, and to Dogger, the gardener, who was prisoner of war in the Far East and who has “moments” ever since his release.

I like that there were plenty of hints of the wounds left behind by the Second World War – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is not as revealing of post-WW2 concerns as, say, The Franchise Affair, but then again, it’s not actually a book from that period, plus it’s narrated by a child, who regardless of how intelligent she is will necessarily have a limited perspective. Nevertheless, the period detail was more than sufficient to make the historical setting more than merely decorative, which is something I was very pleased about.

Speaking of history, one of the most interesting things about Buckshaw is how the history of the de Luces was so tied up with the mansion. I kind of envied Flavia her knowledge of her family’s history going back centuries. Can you tell I’m someone who only got to know one of her grandparents, and not really as well as all that? If you go back more than two generations, I know nothing whatsoever about my ancestors, which sometimes makes me a little sad. This also makes stories about grandparents or ancient families, in which the characters have that sort of personal connection to the past, really appeal to me. Of course, I do realise how tightly this kind of thing is tied up with class. The de Leuces (or, say, the Wimseys) have been rich for generations, which is a huge part why they’re aware of their history. On the other hand, my own family has only been middle-class and even literate for two or three generations, and so no records exist. But it’s really not the social status or the money or the big house that I wish I had – it’s the sense of living history and the awareness of one’s personal ties to the past. I’d kill to know what the lives of my nineteenth-century female ancestors were like, for example.

Clever though it is, what appealed to me the most about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie wasn’t really the mystery per se – but I begin to notice that this is often the case with me. I’m an unapologetic fan of genre fiction, but with mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, Gothic novels, fairy tales, and so on, it’s never really the specific genre elements that I love the most. It’s these book’s novel-ness, really. I love them for the same reasons why I love all literature: for the writing, the characters, the themes, the atmosphere, the ideas, the emotional resonance, the insight into other lives and what this can tell me about my own, and so on. Does this make me an unusual reader of genre fiction? Somehow I think not. Mind you, I don’t mean to say that I love these books despite their genre specificities, or that these aren’t important or interesting to talk about. I just mean that what makes a story work for me almost always transcends the genre it belongs to

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie may not be exactly life-changing, but it’s an immensely satisfying novel and an absolutely delight to read – which is just what I was looking for when I picked it up.

PS: I have to say that Flavia’s contagious enthusiasm for chemistry made me want to read a pop science book on the subject. Recommendations, anyone?

Favourite bits:
What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I wished I could hug him, but I couldn’t. For some time now I had been aware that there was something in the de Luce character which discouraged any outward show of affection towards one another; any spoken statement of love. It was something in our blood.
And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.
Reviewed at: Amy Reads (Thank you again for the book! You’re the best book elf ever.), Stainless Steel Droppings, What Kate’s Reading, If You Can Read This, Life in the Thumb, Chasing Bawa, Bermudaonion’s Weblog, The Book Affair, Bride of the Book God, Regular Ruminations, A Striped Armchair, Care’s Onlike Bookclub, Find Your Next Book Here, Geraniumcat’s Bookshelf, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, Coffee Stained Pages, Medieval Bookworm, Shelf Love, Necromancy Never Pays, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Book-a-rama, The Indextrous Reader, Beth Fish Reads, Bird Brain(ed) Blog, Reviews by Lola, Word Lily, Fleur Fisher Reads, Stella Matutina, Rhapsody in Books

(Phew! I have to quit sometime, right? Just let me know if I missed yours.)

43 comments:

Jessica said...

glad you enjoyed it, I have still yet to read my copy but shuld hopefully soon as Ive yet to read a bad review.

Melody said...

I've seen a lot of good reviews on this book but haven't got around to picking it up yet. Now I've to add this book onto my wishlist after reading your review! Look what you've done to me, LOL! :P

Eva said...

Uncle Tungsten is my favourite pop chemistry book. :D I'm going to pick up The Disappearing Spoon from the library tomorrow, and I have high hopes for it too.

Bina said...

Hehe, course you didn'´t love it because of the mystery ;D But this one's actually one of these books where I like the blurring genre lines (although I usually don't want crime fiction to be too novel-y).

I'm so glad you loved Flavia and isn't it fantastic how an older Canadian man can get her voice so right?

Hope you'll enjoy the second book as well!

joanna said...

I just got this and it's on my 'to take on vacation' pile, I can't wait to meet Flavia! :-) Glad you enjoyed it so much.

Debi said...

Can I just say, "WHEW!"? :P I know this is beyond silly, but when you decided to read this book, I was so afraid you weren't going to like it. I have no earthly idea where that notion came from--it just popped into my head and wouldn't leave. And see the thing is I wanted you to like it so very much. I've been dying to read this ever since Carl's delightful review...and I've sort of been saving it for some time when I know I'll have a couple of days just to sit and really enjoy a pleasant read. (A habit I really must abandon since those "couple of days" never seem to actually materialize.) So irrational fear #1 (you wouldn't like the book) has been proven false, and thus we can avoid confronting irrational fear #2 (that I wouldn't like it if you didn't). Sorry, my dear, I realize that is a far deeper look into my warped brain than you needed to start your weekend. :P

P.S. I adored your review! :D

Elisabeth said...

I'm so glad to hear you describe this one as satisfying. I've read mixed reviews, and one of my book club members keeps recommending it, so now I can support the recommendation! Thanks!

S. Krishna said...

I'm planning on reading this in the next couple of weeks and already have the sequel - I can't wait!

Clare said...

I think I ran across this but gave it a pass because of the crime-solving child angle, so I'm glad to see it's actually well done. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, but I don't think this is for me.

Lightheaded said...

My copy of this book is in a box in my sister's living room in the States that should be picked up and shipped (hopefully) sometime after Labor Day weekend there. One way of saying I can't wait to get my hands on this and see why there's a Flavia de Luca fan club even :)

Amanda said...

LOL I just read Debi's comment and ironically I felt the same way - for some reason I didn't think you were going to like this one! I'm glad you did though. I'm saving this book (and the 2nd) for September, when it's more like fall out. Sometimes I crave mysteries right around then. I read the first few pages though and really loved the tone!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Ack! I have this book on my shelves, and I'd put it in the category of "one of the first things I will read once I have my commitments fulfilled" (whenever the hell that will be...).

Iris on Books said...

I cannot recommend any pop science books I'm afraid.

And you must have read this around the same time that I did. I recently finished it and like you I am now a fan. I of course noted down a million passages to quote, but I have no clue how to review it at all. Your review however, is perfect.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think one of the reasons I didn't like this as much as I might have was the cruelty of the older two sisters! But Flavia is certainly an endearing character!

Word Lily said...

Yay, so glad to hear (again) that you loved this! I know the wanting-to-read-a-pop-science-book-feeling; this book induced that in me, too, but I didn't succumb, thus no recommendation here.

Emidy said...

I'd love to read this book! I've been seeing it a lot recently, but I didn't know it involved a murder mystery. Now you've got me interested - haha! Seriously, though. It sounds really good, and I love how it's set in the 1950s.

Zibilee said...

I am so glad that you loved this book! I really, really want to get the chance to read it. It sounds light it's just delightfully offbeat and not at all what you would expect from a mystery,. Going to have to order this one soon!

Steph said...

So jealous! I still have not been able to get my hands on a copy of this one so now I feel like I'm the last person who hasn't read this book... and I really feel like I would love it! So glad to hear it charmed you, and the little bits on chemistry would probably thrill me too (I used to be a chemistry major way back when...).

Trapunto said...

The review I'd been waiting for, and worth the wait! This book has been on and off my reading list so many times.

The Book Whisperer said...

Ooh, I have this book ready to dive into at home; I've seen quite a few good reviews about it recently. Really looking forward to reading this one.

bermudaonion said...

I loved Flavia too (and appreciate the link to my review) but she didn't make me anxious to read a chemistry book, so I can't help you there.

Amy said...

I am SO glad that you liked this! I was scared to read your review just in case you didn't :D And you are very welcome, I love being a book elf, and again, I'm really happy you liked Flavia as much as I did.

Kathleen said...

Oh how I want to read this book and get to know Flavia better!

Clover said...

I've seen loads of good reviews of this one, but I'm just not excited to read it, so I don't think I ever will. I do however have the sequel. You can have it, if you like?

Daphne said...

I totally want to read this one and I keep forgetting!! OK, requesting from the library right now.

Jenny said...

I was lucky enough to know my great-grandmother (my mother's mother's mother), and I used to love it when she would tell us stories from when she was a girl. We wrote a bunch of her stories down once, but I don't know what we ended up doing with the notebook. :/ But apart from that I feel like I don't know anything about my ancestors either.

Stephanie said...

Flavis sounds like a memorable character. I'm glad the author managed to make her unique and precocious without losing her childish quality.

Trisha said...

Oh...this is another one of those books which has been on my wish list for much too long. The book sounds so unique and quirky.

Avid Reader said...

Welcome to the club! There's something so delightful about Flavia, but sad too.

heidenkind said...

I tried to read this book, but I just wasn't in the mood for it. I do agree that it's good and Flavia is an awesome character, though.

Elise said...

Thanks for the review!! I am very keen to read this book. I think I shall go and put it on hold at the library right now!!

christina said...

I don't know why but I cannot help but snub my nose at this book!

Memory said...

I knew you'd like this one! And I don't think you're such an unusual genre fan. I react to genre texts the same way you do, though, so I could be biased. :)

(Oh, and here's my review).

naida said...

great review nymeth, I've heard good things about this one.
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Kate said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I know we agree on the touches of the 'child' Flavia, especially in her ability to be baited by her older sisters. It is so touching, I think even more so, that they can get to her with the oldest trick in the book, which clearly tells how sensitive she is about her mother and her mysterious death. However I love that she reacts to the teasing by plotting a poison once she's over her tears :) Hope you get a hold of the next one sometime soon!

Trish said...

Ooops--I thought this was the same author who wrote The Uncommon Reader. After Googling I see this is a whole series of books? After this comment I'll just crawl back under that rock. :)

I know what you mean about loving to know about your ancestors. On my mom's side my grandmother has done a fair amount of geneology--tracing the line all the way back to the 1200s or so (including poet Thomas Wyatt and I *think* Anne Boleyn). I won't bore you about details, but I have a copy of my great-great grandmother's journal--she was a Mormon pioneer who was a mid-wife in Southern Utah. Unfortunately I don't know anything about my dad's side other than they were relatively poor Swiss. :(

Adding Bradley to my wishlist!!

Ladytink_534 said...

This just sounds so neat! Something about the way Flavia is described reminds me of Theodosia from R.L. Lafevers' books.

Veens said...

I want to read this book!! I already LOVE Flavia.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I have to read this - have to! It has been on my shelf way too long! :D

Jenners said...

Yay ... another Flavia fan! For me, these books are all about the delighfulness of Flavia. The mystery (for me) was kind of beside the point. Glad you enjoyed it.

Darla D said...

This has been on my list for ages - sounds like I'd better bump it up toward the top!

Nymeth said...

Jessica: It's an easy book to love, that's for sure. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Melody: You'll be grateful, you'll see ;)

Eva: I knew I could count on you for chemistry recommendations :D

Bina: Sorry, I just can't help being THAT kind of mystery reader :P And yes,

Badley really impressed me with how well he captured a child's voice!

Joanna: Enjoy it!

Debi: That's so funny that you thought I wouldn't like it! Have you secretly starting thinking of me as "that spoilsport"? :P

Elisabeth: Really? I think I can only think of a person I know who wasn't too crazy about it! But it's always good to hear some dissenting opinions, even if only to avoid unrealistic expectations :P

S. Krishna: I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

Clare: Yeah, I definitely wouldn't recommend this to anyone who doesn't like child detectives or precocious narrators. But Bradley does pull it off well!

Lightheaded: You'll get it just in time for RIP, then :D

Amanda: lol, you both secretly think of me as The Grinch, don't you? :P It's good that you're saving it for the fall, as it's definitely an atmospheric, October-ish read. I'd have saved it too if I weren't moving so soon.

Sandy: Sigh - it seems that day never comes, doesn't it?

Iris: Thank you so much! I'm sure yours will be great too.

Jill: They were cruel, but I did think there were some warm feelings deep down in there :P

Hannah: I had never quite realised that chemistry could be so interesting! Flavia's passion was certainly contagious.

Emidy: I think you'll enjoy it a lot!

Zibilee: It's delightful and also very quirky, which is a lovely mix. Enjoy!

Steph: I do think you'll enjoy it a lot! If you've waited this long you might as well wait until autumn now, because as Amanda was saying it's a perfect read for then.

Trapunto: I hope you'll keep it there this time :P (And enjoy it, of course!)

Boof: It deserves all the praise it's been getting, I think. Enjoy!

Nymeth said...

Kathy: You're most welcome about the link!

Amy: I really did! Thank you again :D

Kathleen: I hope you'll love her as much as I did!

Clover: I already e-mailed you saying I already have it, but thank you so much again!

Daphne, I hope you'll enjoy it :)

Jenny: I would so love to have met a great-grandmother! My older brother did meet ours on my mother's side, but sadly she has passed by the time I was born.

Stephanie: It takes some talent, doesn't it?

Trisha: Yes - quirky is the perfect word for it!

Avid Reader: Very true. She just sounds so lonely sometimes.

Heidenkind: Aw, I hope it'll work for you if you decide to try again.

Elise: Happy reading!

Christina: Don't! It's good, really :P

Memory: Thank you for your link! And yes, I think we love genre fiction for pretty much the same reasons.

Naida: It seems that pretty much everyone finds it enjoyable :)

Kate: I found it very touching too - she's an incredibly smart child, but still a child. And yes, I did get a kick out of her revenge plans

Trish: lol, I make mistakes like that all the time :P It's a series, yes, but there are only two so far. That's so neat that you know so much about your family on at least once side!

Jen: I remember your reviews of those and I've been meaning to read them ever since!

Veens: You'll only grow to love her more when you do :D

Sheila: Happy reading!

Jenners: Yes, it was exactly the same for me. But I notice that's just my modus operandi with mysteries :P I'm a character-oriented reader no matter what the genre I'm reading is.

Darla: Indeed you should!