Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Everybody loves this book. Everybody. So, of course, since I am invariably disappointed by popular books, I've not leapt onto the bandwagon. It took me months and months of picking it up and putting it back on the shelf to finally just pick up the damn thing and read it.

And I love it too.

I know! Surprised the heck out of me too! (Don't think I didn't hear you saying "But you hate EVERYTHING!")

Flavia de Luce is the eleven-year old antagonist of this novel--I use the word "antagonist" because she is introduced at war with her older sisters. They have ganged up on her, tied her up and locked her in a closet in the attic. She neatly arranges her own escape and appears at dinner before her sisters. By this time she has impressed us with her savvy on having her hands bound (tenting her fingers to keep her wrists apart, she ended up with slack in the rope which she used to escape) and her ability to pick locks. We have also learned that she had the ability to pierce through pretentions--her sisters Ophelia and Daphne are invariably called "Feely and Daffy."

Bradley also paints the status of the family in swift, certain strokes. Mother Harriet is missing, presumed dead after a mountaineering accident shortly after Flavia's birth. Dad is stern but absent-minded, and probably overwhelmed by being left alone with three fierce young females. The house is an old country house, built by generations of variably eccentric de Luces, of which our family are the last. In fact, Harriet was the one who inherited the house, Dad was a shirt-tail relation. Each family member has his or her own passion: Dad is a philatelist, Ophelia loves her own reflection, Daphne always has her head in a book, and Flavia is a chemist.

Charmingly, if improbably, a semi-recent ancestor was also mad about chemistry, and outfitted the top floor of one wing with what was then a state of the art chemistry lab. Flavia has inherited it, and she is especially devoted to poisons.

This, then, is the set up of the family, and only a few more details are necessary to ground the novel: post WWII British countryside, a world where Flavia is free to hop onto her bike and run down to the village to snoop to her heart's content. Also present on the Buckshaw grounds is "Dogger," the jack of all trades who is truly master of none as a result of "shell shock" from the war. He has held most of the jobs around the mansion, and been allowed to sink to his own level, ending up as a sort of gardener/chauffeur. There is also a cook, who comes in mornings and afternoons, making foods the de Luces detest in order to take the leftovers home to her husband.

The novel starts with a bang, in the middle of Flavia's war against her sisters, who torment her by claiming that Harriet adopted her. Flavia exacts a chemical revenge against Feely's pearls, and things have scarcely died down before she finds a dead body in the garden. She literally trips over the body, in fact, while prowling around at night. This scarcely fazes her, of course, nor does the fact that she recognizes the body as that of a man who had been arguing with her father earlier that day.

Could this have something to do with Father's strange behavior when the cook found a dead blackbird with a stamp impaled on its beak?

Flavia is off and detecting, then, running down to the village to do research in the library, chasing down dotty sweetshop proprietors, scaling bell towers at the boys' school, turning out moldy clues and picking locks, while fostering a romance between her sister and a local lad.

To be brutally honest, I have forgotten many of the details of this book, as I finished it while on vacation and immediately picked up the next book on my list. This is not as bad as it might sound, however, because it means that I can go back and re-read it and be charmed anew.

I highly recommend this as a satisfying and charming read, slight, perhaps, but thoroughly delightful. So much so that I have already bought and started the sequel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.

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