I liked this book a lot. I might have liked it even more if my expectations going in weren’t so high.
Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950—and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story—of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….
I admit, I have a weakness for precocious kids in books. Flavia certainly qualifies.
Flavia feels the distance from others that smart kids often do in books (and life). Her mother died when she was a baby. Her father is distant. Her sisters gang up on her to convince her that she was adopted and doesn’t really belong in the family (Flavia uses her chemistry skills to get revenge, perpetuating the cycle). She doesn’t seem to have many connections within the community.
Flavia digs down into her memory of her father’s lectures on stamps, and adds this to her knowledge of chemistry and anatomy, and uses these in following the twists and turns of this mystery. At first it is just a game, but it becomes more serious when her father is accused of murder (somehow the police aren’t convinced when she turns herself in), then again as she gains the attention of the culprits.
I thought that the character played more as a (still precocious) 13 year old than as an 11 year old. The narrator of the audiobook may have been part of that. Overall, she was very good, with an unusual voice that usually worked for me and occasionally annoyed me.
In spite of featuring an 11 year old, this book is not aimed at kids. There isn’t anything particularly inappropriate, but it is intended for adults. I don’t think my daughter would be interested, although I’m not sure why. I’d let her read it if she asked.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie combines an interesting protagonist with a solid mystery to make for a very good read.
I’m writing this review 3 weeks after finishing the book. This is a mistake for me, particularly with an audiobook, where I can’t just flip through to remind myself of details. I’d better get caught up on my reviews, so this doesn’t happen again!