The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie -- Alan Bradley
I used to post about older books a lot more. Somewhere along the way, though, in an effort to keep up with the never-ending supply of review copies, new books at the library, and new books that I buy, I've gotten away from that. And I feel like I'm missing out.
So, for the foreseeable future, anyway, I'm going to start covering older titles on Fridays.
This week's book is—obviously—Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which I've been meaning to read ever since it came out. I remember pestering my former library director to buy the series for the library, and she did, but somehow—despite all of the factors that make it a perfect ME book (obnoxiously smart girl detective, philatelic mystery, sisterly squabbles, impoverished British upper class, small town gossip, boys' school hijinks)—I've never made the time for it until now.
June, 1950. When we first meet eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, she's tied up, gagged, and locked in a dark closet. Not for long, though: her older sisters Ophelia and Daphne may have her beat in terms of pure physicality, but they'll never be a match for her brain.
So when a real tangle of a mystery arrives at Buckshaw—quite literally at the front door—Flavia isn't just intrigued: she's ecstatic. She doesn't know what the dead jackdaw means, or why it has a Penny Black postage stamp impaled on its beak. But she does know that it means something to her philatelist father: and whatever it is, it isn't good. When she finds a dying man in the cucumber patch later that night—a man who she saw arguing with her father just hours before—the mystery becomes that much more intriguing... and with her father as the most logical suspect, her need to find out the truth becomes that much more urgent.
Surprisingly enough, this book didn't win me over until about the halfway mark. Before that, despite Flavia's obvious charms—she's bright, enchantingly vicious, a great liar, and impressively obnoxious—she felt more like the idea of a person than an actual person. Also, and more off-putting, Bradley's third-person narration was slightly condescending towards her, like, "Oh, look at this child who thinks she's so clever. Let's titter at her innocent obliviousness." Sadly, I can't identify anything specific, but SOMETHING put my back up, clearly.
But! There is a distinct turning-point for both problems: after a long conversation with her father—well, it's more of a monologue on his part—there's a shift, Flavia suddenly blooms into a real, three-dimensional person, and there's a subtle change in the narrative voice as well: it starts treating her as an equal. To be fair, before that conversation, Flavia had been looking at the mystery as a game of sorts, and after it, she begins detecting in earnest. So, to a degree—even though it made me uncomfortable—the condescension in the beginning was warranted. Or at least understandable in hindsight.
Other thoughts: I pegged the murderer immediately, but that didn't bother me, since the whys and hows were still left to untangle. Flavia's interactions with Inspector Hewitt are wonderful, the class issues are nicely handled, as is the depiction of post-WWII life. By the end, I had developed some serious affection for almost all of the characters, and I'll definitely be reading the sequels.
Book source: Personal copy.