BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 2009
Best ebook deal: Barnes and Noble
First of all, you should know that The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a young adult novel. Frustratingly, this information is nowhere in the book’s description, flap copy, or any related press I’ve found.
It’s odd they don’t mention it, because Sweetness is pretty much an archetypical YA novel. Its cover, for instance, makes more sense for adolescent fiction than for an adult mystery. Its premise feels very young adult: a precocious child with a fractured family life solves a crime as the adults around her fumble and frown.
Even Bradley’s writing style would fit juvenile readers well; he parenthetically defines almost every word that has more than two syllables (and he uses a lot of them; building vocabulary). Before Sweetness Bradley wrote children’s fiction, and his disposition fits YA fiction.
I suppose the publishers thought this book would make more money pointed at adults, and perhaps it did. But it’s not satisfying as an adult mystery, and I think it was a big mistake to take that tack.
I’d say Sweetness would work best for readers about age 12 or 13, (although I’m definitely not an expert on young adult fiction). Not that you can’t enjoy this book as an adult, you just have to enjoy it as an adult reading a children’s mystery.
Flavia de Luce is the eleven-year-old heroine of Sweetness. She has two mean sisters, an absent-minded father, and a mother who died before she can remember. She’s precocious, with the vocabulary of a nerdy PhD student, and she has a passion for chemistry, especially for poisons. (Chemistry isn’t really integral to the novel; Bradley just assigns a chief interest to several main characters―chemistry, stamps, literature, etc.)
When a mysterious man arrives at the de Luces’, argues with Flavia’s father, and then turns up dead, Flavia takes it upon herself to solve the mystery. Along the way, Flavia discovers the world of philately, or stamp collecting, and a little bit about her father’s own childhood.
For an adult reader, Bradley’s plot and style seem amateurish―which is not all bad. His writing is repetitive and overwrought, but also exuberant and energetic. For younger readers, Bradley’s habit of defining larger words might be enlightening; for adults, it’s more pedantic. For instance:
“Mediocrity, I discovered, was the great camouflage; the great protective coloring.”
And here’s an example of Flavia’s habit of commenting at length on everything she experiences in the course of her investigation:
“And how may I help you, dearie?”
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as “dearie.” When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to “Cyanide,” I am going to put under “Uses” the phrase “Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie.’
For adults, this becomes tiresome. For an adolescent reader, I could see it being inspirational. Flavia is smart and well-spoken, and she’s also an ardent feminist. The story takes place in the year 1950, during the reign of King George VI, but Flavia is appalled every time the detectives working the case fail to include her in their investigation. She holds the adults around her accountable, and sticks to her guns in times of strife. She’s a confident, competent kid, and a pretty good role model.
The plot of Sweetness, too, seems much better for kids than adults. Flavia spends the first half of the book delving into her father’s role in the death of this stranger. In that time, she discovers that her father isn’t perfect and that he was once a child just like she is now. The ending, likewise, could be empowering and compelling for kids. Adults, however, will probably be more bored than anything else.
For me, this novel was more a publishing curiosity than a riveting mystery. For young adults or fans of young adult fiction, though, it could be worth checking out.