The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I didn’t make the obvious connection at first, between the book and the abandoned laboratory I had discovered as a child. But when I did, my life came to life—if that makes any sense. Here in Uncle Tar’s lab, row on row, were the chemistry books he had so lovingly assembled, and I soon discovered that with a little effort most of them were not too far beyond my understanding.

Simple experiments came next, and I tried to remember to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren’t a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better.

As time went on, my notebooks grew fatter. My work was becoming ever more sophisticated as the mysteries of Organic Chemistry revealed themselves to me, and I rejoiced in my newfound knowledge of what could be extracted so easily from nature. My particular passion was poison. (p 4)

This book is about a ten-year old girl in 1950 who uncovers a murder and goes about solving it using, primarily, her extensive skills in chemistry. Are there other novels written about great detectives? Obviously. About women? Sure. And scientists? Indubitably. But how often does one run across a protagonist who is all of these things at once? Rarely.

Matilda comes to mind, although she’s a very young genius (and not specifically a scientist)  and one of the characteristics I particularly like about Flavia de Luce is that she’s not. She’s inquisitive, of course, and fannishly dedicated to her field of study, but she isn’t so different from her peers in other respects. She fights terribly with her two old sisters. She goes off exploring on her bicycle for hours at a time. She hates the food she’s made to eat. All very normal, relatable quirks. She does have a way of unsettling adults with her precocious interest in the murder that has occurred (unlike Nancy Drew, who somehow managed to solve murders and be considered absolutely darling at the same time), but I know plenty of unsettling (and precocious) children.

I actually found myself fantasizing about a book where she and Christopher Boone meet – difficult to picture since both of them prefer their own company to socializing – but delightful none the less. It then occurred to me that I’ve manage to read three (ostensibly) YA books in a row set in England  (although Bradley is Canadian, whereas Haddon and Pratchett are British), and each one has been remarkable in its own way. The funny thing is, I’ve actually owned The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie since I got my first kindle back in August of 2009. It was a new release, and in my frenzy to collect books I might someday read on this novel device, I bought it and it has languished there ever since.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually tried to read this book four or five times in the past, and I had never gotten past the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in the patience of books though, and when, this past Friday, I was looking for something to curl up with, here it was. This time, I had no problem getting past the first few pages.  What I did have difficulty with was getting laundry done, baking bread for dinner, doing the dishes that piled up stickily in our sink…

I was completely enthralled. It was physically painful to put this book down and go on to other things – important things, things that couldn’t be avoided at all, but which I desperately wanted to forget about in favor of this book. And that, of course, meant I finished it far too quickly. I was moping around, thinking maybe I should have slipped a few of those critical tasks in just so that I could have spent a little longer with Flavia when I discovered that Bradley’s written more books about her. More! More Flavia? More science?! And poison! And well-wrought revenge?!! This was simultaneously the best and the worst news I could have gotten…or possibly that “very important things” could have received.

 

Alan Bradley (and Flavia) can be found here.

21 thoughts on “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

  1. I read this book quite some time ago and though it wasn’t a normal part of my flock to genre- I did enjoy it. Very clever writing, which is what lured me in, in the process…

    1. I have to admit, I had no idea what to expect when I started it, but Flavia managed to steal my heart! If I hadn’t added it to my queue years ago, I probably never would have gotten around to reading it, and now I’m grateful that, for whatever reason, I picked it up :)

        1. I think what I need is a really good designer. Shirts aren’t too hard to sell if they have a kick ass design, but that’s definitely not my area of expertise. We’ll have to be on the lookout, because that would actually be a really fun side project.

    1. I think these books are appropriate for children eight and up, although it’s certainly not written at an elementary school level – he clearly writes with a high respect for what a child can do and comprehend, and his writing is as appropriate for you and I as it is for a young person. I would probably choose it as a read-aloud novel to younger audiences.

      Honestly, for me, the key to knowing the right age for any book actually comes down to knowing the intended reader’s taste. One of the best things about Flavia is that she teaches herself chemistry from books intended for college graduates, but because she is passionate about the subject, she figures it out. That, in a nutshell, is my philosophy when it comes to reading – it’s not about age or ability, it’s about respecting and encouraging existing interests.

  2. This was a very interesting read. The title and cover sets this book apart on a shelf, and I remember finding it quite slow compared to other mystery novels. But I ended up loving it nonetheless. have you read any other Flavia de Luce books?

    1. I did. I just finished the second one and loved it too. I agree that the cover art is unusual, and I’ve really enjoyed it as well – very different from the cover of a typical mystery novel. Once I got through the initial chapter of the first book, I didn’t even find it slow; I thought Flavia’s frenetic pacing (does that child ever sleep?!) kept it interesting, and since I’m not a big fan of violence, I appreciated that it wasn’t too intense. It definitely runs to a specific taste though – sort of like Agatha Christie for the young reader ;)

      1. Yes! I’m glad that it isn’t too dark for such a young heroine. And an awesome one too, I love how smart and capable she is! And the ending surprised me too; I had an inkling, but it’s always jarring when the facts are given to you full blow.

  3. I’ve had this book on the back-burner for a while. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters either, which was a pity since the subject was so fascinating.
    But I’m definitely going to give this another go, sounds like it pays off big :)

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