The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: Review
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is one of the most captivating books I have ever read. It is a mystery novel taking place in 1950s England, written by Alan Bradley and published in 2009. It won several awards, including the Debut Dagger Award. It subverts expectations in many ways and left me utterly speechless, but I'm getting ahead of myself. It's time to break down this awesome book.
The narrator/protagonist is a precocious 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce. Her family line is a long and impressive one, and she dwells in their ancestral manor, Buckshaw, outside a little village called Bishop's Lacey. Her father, two older sisters, and their gardener/handyman Dogger live there with her.
What will immediately stand out to you about Flavia is her remarkably sharp mind - she is an apparent genius - as well as her quick wit and passion for chemistry. Often hiding herself away in the sanctuary that is her late uncle's laboratory, she is a master of all things chemical, especially poisons.
As the plot progresses, Flavia's natural deductive skills will no doubt impress you as she stays one step ahead of the police in a gripping mystery. But what I love most about the main character is her unwavering positivity and ambition, even (or especially) in the face of murder and crime. It's both an amusing and endearing quality and a breath of fresh air after so many iterations of the classic detective; the serious and quiet individual with a forlorn air about them. Flavia is entirely original, and I hope other readers find her as entertaining as I do.
This being a mystery novel, I won't get too much into the story. But I will say that the truth unravels in a deliciously unexpected way, and the mystery is about so much more than murder. It had me second-guessing everything as the most bizarre clues were uncovered by our spunky young sleuth.
It all begins when Flavia finds a man seconds away from death in their cucumber patch, and from that point on the story pulls you in and drags you behind Flavia as she races to solve the crime before anyone else can. You won't be able to put the book down.
But what I really appreciate about the plot in this novel and the subsequent ones in the series is that there's more going on than a simple murder mystery. It's a story about family, resilience, and, strangely enough, stamps. The truth behind the events that take place in the story is deeper and more complex than I would have ever expected.
And let me just say, it's rare that I am so invested in the climax of a book that my heart fairly beats out of my chest as I read it, not able to turn the pages fast enough.
As I said, this mystery novel has more to say than a simple solution to a puzzling crime. Its flavor is quite akin to literary fiction in its unique tone and whimsical narrative. But no one puts it better than the author himself in a 2009 interview with January Magazine:
It’s a book about how far youthful idealism can carry you if it’s not stamped out, as it so often is. And besides that, I like to think that it’s a rattling good mystery, too -- the sort of book that makes you feel better when you’ve finished than you did when you started.
This... is just perfectly true and wonderfully said. If this book had been written with the same exact plot and mystery but with a different protagonist and more ordinary tone, it would not stand out nearly as much. There is a reason he chose to make the main character so young and innocent.
It's Flavia's idealistic outlook and adventurous spirit that reminds the reader of just how exciting life can be if you hold on to that youthful bravery and bravado. (I also appreciate how he said "stamped" as a little reference to the story. My goodness, Alan Bradley. You're spectacular.)
And. of course, an unforgettable protagonist against a mediocre plot wouldn't be desirable either. The author did not miss the mark in either category. It's no wonder the novel is so acclaimed.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a wonderful book filled with little morsels of prose, crime-solving, history, friendships, and youthful genius. I highly recommend it as a story that anyone would enjoy. It stands out triumphantly in a world of new books that strive for that fresh, memorable flair.
Happy sleuthing! If you've read any Flavia de Luce books, let us know what you thought of them in the comments below.
To get a copy of the novel, head over here!