Obviously I haven’t posted in a while. So, since I’m not writing much at all, I think for now I’ll just share reviews from my goodreads page, especially since this one got so long.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I was reading, this book didn’t earn more than two stars, and barely that, but after I set it down, I felt I should give it three. Why?
Well, first, this book is shelved under “Mystery” at the local library, and not YA. And I don’t think it’s meant to be young adult, despite the 11-year-old heroine. Yes, she’s young, but the story construction follows adult mystery series tropes pretty much by rote, and it simply doesn’t *feel* like a YA read. (Sorry, it’s been a few days since I read it, so I don’t know what I mean by that.)
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is your straightforward mystery series start with a *twist*! Flavia, the main character, is 11 years old. And she loves chemistry.
That conceit convinced me to check it out. But the execution lost my suspension of disbelief. I wanted to believe: when Flavia’s sisters tell her that she was adopted and claim their mother brought baby pictures to the orphanage for reference, it was a genuine sibling prank. We told my youngest brother he was dropped off by aliens, but the orphanage story is good. However, that’s all we get in the sibling relationship department for more than 300 pages. While Flavia has exactly one instance of sisterly affection, it’s over in just a few pages. For a first person novel, Flavia has remarkably limited reflection or concern.
Which brings me to the main problem I had with this novel. Flavia sounds less like a girl fascinated by chemistry, and more like a sociopath. See, when I read “eleven-year-old Flavia, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison,” I thought she just liked the sciences. Instead, Bradley seems to have meant a child genius. Except, even for a genius, Flavia has few emotional reactions to anything. And as for a mystery-type story about a child sociopath? I Am Not A Serial Killer did it better. And yes, I think she’s a sociopath. She literally terrorizes her sister Daphne by shoving her around on the library ladder; when Daphne says “‘Sometimes you scare me,'” Flavia considers replying that she sometimes scares herself, but “then [she] remembered that silence can sometimes do more damage than words.” p 129. That she truly frightened her sister doesn’t bother her at all, especially since she can use it to her advantage. If she’d had even a momentary regret, ever…
Flavia does not read like a real child. Not because she’s too cynical (that could be done well), but because Bradley finds it necessary to keep reminding the reader at least every other page. If, after Flavia blew off her sister near the end, she still felt some vestige of affection, I might not have been so bother. This is a a series; maybe Bradley just doesn’t want to bother with actual character development.
It’s not just Flavia. Overall, the characters are weak. The supporting characters:
- Father: distant, likes stamps
- Harriet: dead mother (hopefully sequel bait, otherwise her presence in Flavia’s narration is far too intrusive)
- Ophelia: oldest sister, attractive, plays piano
- Daphne: middle sister, reads melodrama (therefore wants to be a writer & melodramatic), irrelevant
- Various villagers: quirky and deliver plot points
- Inspector Hewitt: required skeptical detective
- Dogger: the faithful dog (only he’s supposed to be a person; his character really bothered me by the end)
To switch it up, let’s talk about the mystery. As I said, this fits perfectly well into the traditional model of the cozy mystery, or is at least a subset of that genre. I don’t read a lot of any particular genres, and it’s been a while since I read a lot of the mystery genre particularly. However, I’d say The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is fairly good mystery read. There isn’t really a lot of suspense, and the guilty party was pretty obvious as soon as he popped up, but Flavia does lots of nosing and poking around, as befits any amateur detective.
I’ve been complaining a lot, but that’s probably where this book earned the third star. If you are willing to accept Flavia’s character, you’ll probably find it an enjoyable read. I don’t want to sound like your undiscerning reader if you accept her, I’m just even more cynical than she is. 😉
But Flavia does have it too easy. No one objects to Flavia, whether they ought to or not, even whether they have reason or not. Any difficulty she might have with a witness is resolved with in a few paragraphs. Mary Stoker works at the inn where the victim stayed, and Flavia needs her help. Apparently someone “crept up behind her” at the inn, and it reads like an assault of some kind, and at any rate, Mary is uncomfortable with it, and Flavia tries to use it against her. Maryalso resents Flavia for class differences and her sister Ophelia. And there’s this passage:
I detected instantly that she didn’t like me. It’s a fact of life that a girl can tell in a flash if another girl likes her. …Between girls there is a silent and unending flow of invisible signals, like the high-frequency wireless messages between the shore and the ships at sea, and this secret flow of dots and dashes was signaling that Mary detested me (p 85).
But because Flavia is the main character, Mary just rolls over and offers the information she needs, risking her job to do so. Because Flavia is spunky.
(Also, because I am female, and Bradley is a middle-aged man, that block quote bothers me for other reasons.)
Back to Flavia’s lack of opposition. She’s allowed in the jail to see her father because she bullies Inspector Hewitt (who is by the way, otherwise the most convincing character, mostly because he tries to oppose Flavia). Her father gives in, and gives her a full account of his back story, because she can’t find it any other way (which is to say, Bradley can’t write around it, but I found the set up unconvincing). Dr. Kissing has that last piece of the puzzle Flavia needs to solve the mystery, but doesn’t approve of woman. He’s also in a nursing home. However, he knows all the circumstances (so Flavia doesn’t have to recap for him) and forgives her for being female because she insults her sister? I’m not sure why Bradley felt it necessary to make getting information so easy for Flavia, but I would much rather have read about her struggle to be a detective in an adult world, while actually being a child, not getting an automatic pass.
Also, Flavia is something of a brat. Should you know her in real life, she’d be terribly unlikable, perhaps why I never warmed up to her, since I probably would have been her victim.
Which reminds me: Flavia considers herself a chemist. She’s such an awesome chemist that she never has any problems with her chemistry, such as blowing things up, or poisoning herself (at least, not by the time this novel takes place). But I thought I remembered something about how she didn’t like general reading. And she wasn’t supposed to know much about the village. Yet throughout the novel, Flavia constantly makes literary references of all sorts, and knows all kinds of village history, at least until she interacts with another character, and needs another clue for the scavenger hunt of a mystery.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie supposedly takes place 1950 at “Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home.” Despite that setting, Bradley included remarkably little atmosphere. His descriptions are serviceable, but failed to make me feel like I was there. Half the time, I forgot this wasn’t supposed to take place today.
One last note. First person can be an artificial point-of-view choice, especially in the past tense. Because the reader is in the head of the narrator, but the narrator has obviously already been through the experiences they’re narrating. So where’s the suspense? Usually, I’m willing enough to accept the premise, though I tend not to like first person in general. This novel has something of an odd first person premise: at times Flavia seems to be reflecting as her older self, but it’s also presented with immediacy (she doesn’t have the benefit of future knowledge).
Was I jealous of Ophelia’s memories? Did I resent them? I don’t believe I did; it ran far deeper than that. In rather an odd way, I despised Ophelia’s memories of our mother (p 4).
Ten o’clock had come and gone, and still I couldn’t sleep. Mostly, when the light’s out I’m a lump of lead, but tonight was different. I lay on my back, hands clasped behind my head, reviewing the day (p 22)
unless talking about her characterization. Bradley tends to use the discrepancy to characterize Flavia’s quirkiness, but it tends to stop the plot and it simply isn’t very vivid.
Overall, despite the difference in age, Flavia really is a fairly typical heroine of the series mystery. The mystery is traditional, and I think works well enough for its genre. If you like series mysteries on the more “cozy” side, you might like this. And I confess, it does have a nice title.
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