Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Author: Alan Bradley
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: April 28, 2009
Publisher: Delacourte Press
Source: Personal Copy
Who knew that an eleven year old, precocious self-professed chemistry geek would make one of the most delightful detectives! I was lucky to go into The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie with relatively little knowledge of the story and having read few reviews. I think that helped me enjoy this story more than I would have since there were so many positive reactions, which would have made my expectations unattainable high.
Flavia de Luce is the brilliant and confident sleuth in this new series of mystery novels by Canadian author Alan Bradley. Most of her days are spent hiding from her eccentric family in an abandoned chemistry lab in the east wing of the aging Buckshaw mansion working on her vast experiments, of which her "particular passion was poison." One summer day in 1950, a jack snipe is found on the doorstep of the mansion, a Penny Black stamp pierced by the beak. This bizarre event sets up Flavia's discovery of a a dying man in the cucumber patch and begins "the most interesting thing that had ever happened to [her] in [her] entire life."
Flavia lives with her reclusive philatelist father, who still mourns the loss of his late wife Harriett, and her two sisters, narcissistic Ophelia and bookworm Daphne. Also among the residents of Buckshaw is the homely housekeeper Mrs. Mullet and groundskeeper, Dogger. Add in a shrewd inspector and a few characters from the Buckshaw patriarch's past, and you have the makings of an astutely written whodunit. There are plenty of unexpected plot twists and the pacing was appropriate, keeping me turning page after page. I had a lot of fun following Flavia on her adventure and seeing as the pieces of the mystery were revealed. Hands down, Flavia is one of the best mystery narrators I've come across. She's so intelligent and inquisitive when it comes to the problems she encounters, and she has such an incredible vivacity for life.
One complaint many reviewers have is that Flavia's words and actions are not believable for an eleven-year-old. I think this is precisely why this book succeeds. Most adults forget how being a preteen felt, whether shy and insecure or audacious with an on-top-of-the-world attitude. Flavia is definitely the latter with an outlook that "I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did." The story is told from Flavia's viewpoint, so it only makes sense that her actions appear bold with a wisdom beyond her years. Plus, she's spent much of her childhood in an isolated estate with nothing but her books as companions, so I feel her intelligence is very plausible. I think any other characterization would just place this novel in the pile of other failed books with child narrators written from an adult perspective. To truly write a successful young character the story must be written through young eyes, and I think Bradley's Flavia is wonderfully realized.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie flows smoothly from conflict to resolution. Not a page went by that I did not find myself smiling or anxious to see where this fun narrator would lead me. Bradley definitely won me over with his charming first novel, and I can't wait to read the next Buckshaw Chronicles mystery already sitting in my TBR pile.