The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A book review

the_sweetness_at_the_bottom_of_the_pie

Bibliography: Bradley, C. Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. 2009. New York. Delacorte Press.
9780385342308

Plot:
Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce spends her days teaching herself chemistry (with a focus, bordering on obsession, on poisons), sparring with her distant and frequently antagonistic older sisters, and wondering about the mother she can’t remember.  When a strange chain of events occurs in the de Luce household, beginning with the appearance of a dead bird and a postage stamp on the doorstep and ending with a dead stranger in the garden, Flavia isn’t afraid.

She’s intrigued.

Her natural curiosity drives her to try and discover who the stranger was and how he died—even before her reclusive, stamp-collecting father becomes the prime suspect in the investigation.  As she pieces together the connections between an incident in her father’s past and both corpses, Flavia has to put all of her intelligence, observational skill, chemical knowledge, and ability to play on the assumptions of others to work.

Critical Analysis:

Flavia is a rarity of a character.  The author could have used her characteristics of being an isolated, autodidact genius as an excuse to write her as an adult in an eleven-year-old body—but he didn’t, and that’s a large part of what makes this such a great book.  Flavia clearly thinks of herself as mentally superior to most of the people around her (and she’s probably right, at least to a degree).  She is aware that most people won’t take her as seriously as they would an adult, and uses that to her advantage as often as she is frustrated by it.  She is provided for in terms of food, clothing, and a roof over her head, but has essentially raised herself in addition to seeking out most of her own education.  She has developed her own sense of morality, based largely on what she finds practical.  These traits are balanced by the glimpses the reader—and much less often, other characters—get of Flavia’s more human and childish sides.  She clearly wishes for a more affectionate or at least more normal relationship with her family, has complicated feelings about her mother—in whose shadow she lives due to their resemblance, even though Flavia never knew her—is at least somewhat lonely, and struggles with temper issues not at all surprising in a preteen.  She is not an ordinary or typical child, but she’s very much a child all the same.

Many of the other characters fall somewhat flat by comparison, especially during the first half to two-thirds of the book.  This could be due to the fact that the reader sees them as Flavia does, and Flavia is a rather self-absorbed personality—which, considering that she has a great deal going on in her mind at any given moment, makes sense.  During the ending and the chapters leading up to it, the reader does get to see other sides of some characters as Flavia discovers them; her sister Ophelia leading the charge to rescue her from the Pit, or Mrs. Mullet being fully aware that none of the de Luce family liked her custard pies.  This may frustrate some readers, but will add to the authenticity of Flavia’s narration for others.

The murder mystery is well-crafted, with enough twists and surprises to keep a reader guessing, but not contrived or convoluted.  Readers who enjoy having their vocabulary stretched will appreciate the rich and skillful use of language, and probably pick up a few terms they haven’t heard before (unless they’re stamp collectors or chemists, or know someone who is).  Dry humor and hilariously surreal interactions, especially between Flavia and her sisters, are interspersed with Flavia’s heart-wrenchingly matter-of-fact observations of her own life and the world at large.  Getting to know the de Luces and their household is as interesting as the mystery Flavia is trying to solve.  Who was Harriet, really—an eccentric free spirit who died in an unfortunate mountaineering accident, or was there something more to her life and disappearance?  What other secrets is Buckshaw hiding, besides a thoroughly well fitted-out scientific library and chemistry lab?  These questions are hinted at without ever being asked outright, and this reader looks forward to finding out if they’re explored in the rest of the series.

Mystery and general fiction fans, adults and teens, and anyone who has a soft spot for snarky first-person narration by refreshingly unusual characters will be likely to enjoy The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Awards:

2007 Debut Dagger Award
2009 Agatha Awards, Best First Novel
2010 Amelia Bloomer List, Young Adult Fiction
2010 Arthur Ellis Awards, Best First Novel
2010 Barry Award, Best First Novel
2010 Dilys Award
2010 Macavity Awards, Best First Mystery Novel
2010 Spotted Owl Award

One of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults of 2010

Reviews:

“…Only those who dislike precocious young heroines with extraordinary vocabulary and audacious courage can fail to like this amazingly entertaining book…” – Booklist

“Brilliant, irresistible and incorrigible, Flavia has a long future ahead of her. Bradley’s mystery debut is a standout chock full of the intellectual asides so beloved by Jonathan Gash readers. It might even send budding sleuths to chemistry classes.” – Kirkus Reviews

Connections:

Possible tie-in themes for discussion by a book group or literature class include chemistry, philately (stamp collecting), and social issues of 1950s England.

Flavia is an unreliable narrator; the way she describes family and household members, or her own reactions, may not be entirely accurate or fair (and the reader has no way of knowing for sure).  Book club members might talk about how this method of narration adds to (or detracts from) the story, and how different or similar the book might have been if told from a different perspective.

A set of discussion questions for this book is available for free on its page at www.randomhouse.com.

Similar Read(s):

Jinks, Catherine. Evil Genius. 2005. Harcourt.
9780152059880

Carriger, Gail. Etiquette & Espionage. 2013. Little, Brown.
9780316190084

Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 2006. Penguin.
9780143039976
(Note: this is a new edition. Originally published in 1962 by Viking.)

Submitted by Rachel C.