Flavia de Luce, budding chemist with a penchant for mischief and poison, lives at Buckshaw with her father and sisters. One night, the eleven-year-old almost literally stumbles across the dying body of a stranger in the back garden. She is immediately on the case, racing to beat Inspector Hewitt to the solution and to find the murderer before the innocent go to jail or anyone else is killed.
One of the best parts of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley is getting to know Flavia de Luce. She is simply a breath of fresh air. Her wit, her intelligence, her ability to reason, and her clear-headedness under duress do not for an instant hide the fact that she is preteen with a fabulous imagination and the luck to be living in 1950 England, when children were given much more freedom than they are today.
Here's what she thinks about being a Catholic attending an Anglican service:
Because it was trinity Sunday we were treated to a rare old romp from Revelation all about the sardine stone, the rainbow round the throne, the sea of glass like unto crystal, and the four beasts full of eyes before and uncomfortably behind.The mystery itself is beautifully set up, and it is great fun to follow along as Flavia attempts to put the pieces together. When her thinking goes astray, we are right there with her until, at the climax, we say, "Oh yes, you're right! Why didn't I see that sooner?"
I had my own opinion about the true meaning of this obviously alchemical reference, but, since I was saving it for my Ph.D. thesis, I kept it to myself. And even though we de Luces were players on the opposing team, as it were, I couldn't help envying those Anglicans the glories of their Book of Common Prayer (p. 116).
Besides the very believable spats among the sisters, we are also treated to numerous literary and cultural references, such as this:
Miss Mountjoy rummaged in the desk drawer and dredged up a ring of iron keys that looked as if they might once have belonged to the jailers of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo. I gave them a cheery jingle and walked out the door (p. 63).Finally, as wonderful as life seems at Buckshaw--well, if you discount the small matter of the murder--we are subtly and constantly reminded that the war is still a part of life in 1950s England. Flavia is a bit mystified and doesn't quite understand the physiological effects the war has had on Dogger, her father's man, who suffers from shell-shock, or what today we call post-traumatic stress. She also cannot reconcile the man her father is at home with the man he must have been as a soldier. These nods to the war anchor the novel in time and place and provide the contrast to Flavia's joie de vive.
Although I received a review copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in spring 2009, I listened to the unabridged audio production read by Jayne Entwistle, who brilliantly captured the enthusiasm of eleven-year-old Flavia. Entwistle's pacing and inflections added both to the overall charm of the novel and to the tension of the action.
Here is the trailer for the book, narrated by Entwistle:
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Published by Delacorte Press, 2009
Challenges: New Author, Support Your Library, Audiobook, What's in a Name, 2010, 100+
Source: Review and borrowed (see review policy)