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Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley (hardcover, $23)

Writers need to be careful with precocious children characters. A little goes a long way. Having said that, I mostly enjoyed Flavia de Luce, heroine of Alan Bradley’s novel, who is eleven years old and brimming with eccentricities.

In 1950, it was not untoward for a girl to hope for a career in science, although it probably would have been a little unusual for a girl to have a well-stocked laboratory in her family’s mansion. And it would have been really unusual for a girl to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons.

Flavia is the difficult youngest daughter in an eccentric aristocratic family. Her father is distant and reclusive, her mother died while Flavia was quite young, and her sisters are dismissive of her. She marches to her own drummer and tries to find her proper place in a world full of mysteries.

When not busy poisoning her sister, Flavia detects. When first a dead bird and then a dead person plop themselves on her doorstep, she takes to solving these mysteries with great enthusiasm.

Flavia is not another Nancy Drew, however. Bradley adds depth to his book in the characters of Flavia’s father and the gardener. There’s a little unevenness as Bradley tries to balance the buoyancy of a young girl with a passion and the sadness of men who’ve seen too much badness.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end I didn’t really like Flavia’s father all that much. Flavia deserves better.

(P.S. I've been in England for the last three weeks, walking Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk, and haven't had much of a chance to read.)

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