Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Bradley, Alan - Flavia de Luce 01 - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie From Goodreads:

A delightfully dark English mystery, featuring precocious young sleuth Flavia de Luce and her eccentric family.

The summer of 1950 hasn't offered up anything out of the ordinary for eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce: bicycle explorations around the village, keeping tabs on her neighbours, relentless battles with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and brewing up poisonous concoctions while plotting revenge in their home's abandoned Victorian chemistry lab, which Flavia has claimed for her own.

But then a series of mysterious events gets Flavia's attention: A dead bird is found on the doormat, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. A mysterious late-night visitor argues with her aloof father, Colonel de Luce, behind closed doors. And in the early morning Flavia finds a red-headed stranger lying in the cucumber patch and watches him take his dying breath. For Flavia, the summer 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."

Did the stranger die of poisoning? There "was" a piece missing from Mrs. Mullet's custard pie, and none of the de Luces would have dared to eat the awful thing. Or could he have been killed by the family's loyal handyman, Dogger... or by the Colonel himself! At that moment, Flavia commits herself to solving the crime -- even if it means keeping information from the village police, in order to protect her family. But then her father confesses to the crime, for the same reason, and it's up to Flavia to free him of suspicion. Only she has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim's identity, and a conspiracy that reaches back into the de Luces' murky past.

This is a book I saw reviewed very positively on several blogs. It sounded like it should be quite delightful. Eccentric English families, strange murders, a Victorian laboratory and its resident eleven year old chemist. What could be better? So I reserved it from the library and started it pretty much right away.

Unfortunately, I think I was expecting too much. While I enjoyed the story, I found it lacking a certain deftness in execution that I had been expecting from other readers’ reviews. Instead, the writing seemed a little stodgy, rather like a sadly undercooked pie crust.

I kept on reading, interested to find out just what was going on, and I’m not in the least sorry that I read the book, but there was still that something missing from the experience. I think, if that delicate, quirky touch had been there, this would have been a brilliant book, filled with strange and delightful characters and happenings.

Instead, I found it all a bit over the top. Flavia was fun, but she was terribly precocious for an eleven year old, and you’ve got to get the characterisation just right for that to work. Sure, I’ve never been to England in the 1950s, but I can’t quite believe the other characters all told Flavia all the secrets they did, or let her traipse around the countryside the way she did. She was never at home and no-one seemed to care. And she just kept on getting in the way. If I had been the policeman in charge, I’d have wanted to lock her in her bedroom and throw away the key.

All her chemical investigations and musings were also a lot of fun, but I do query an eleven year old, even such a precocious one as Flavia, holding quite that much knowledge in her head. (Of course, it didn’t help that this adult who was once a chemist couldn’t really remember any of it, so maybe I was just jealous.)

From the blurbs and reviews I’d read, I had been expecting there to be a lot more solidarity between the sisters than there was which was something I was looking forward to reading, so finding that the girls really didn’t seem to care all that much about each other was rather disappointing.

Please, don’t think this is a bad book, because it wasn’t. But for me, it was an average book and I’d been expecting something spectacular. This was very much a case of having expectations that were way too high and that’s one of the few downsides of reading lots of book blogs. Sometimes, something that works well for others, just doesn’t work as well for me.

All the same, I have the sequel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (aren’t the titles just so cool?), on reserve from the library. I won’t be going into it with such high expectations, which I hope will make the reading experience more enjoyable.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley 
Flavia de Luce, Book 1
Read: 2-2-10 to 4-2-10

Flavia de Luce

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Goodreads link: Due for release 10-3-10)


Aarti said...

I have heard a lot of hype about this book. I hate the feeling of really anticipating a book and then feeling let down when it doesn't *quite* meet your expectations. That most recently happened for me with Graceling. I think now... maybe I should just wait several months to read books that get so popular so fast, just in case it makes me too excited!

Kerry said...

I think there's something to be said for letting the hype die down before reading. And of course, some books are going to work for us and some aren't, regardless of other people's opinions.

I think I would have liked this a lot more if I wasn't expecting so much.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

I'm going to link to yours, it's a better review than mine and I totally agree with it! :)