Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tomato Girl by Jane Pupek

Review for Early Reviewers program of www.LibraryThing.com

This is one intense novel. Not since I read Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (also from Algonquin Press) have I read a story so terrible, so graphic, so intense, and so absorbing. I started to read on Sunday, but had to stop after the first chapter for an unexpected short trip for lunch with some family members. On Monday afternoon, I started over, and could hardly put it down. With 40 (of 300 pages) left, I stopped at 11 last night completely exhausted. To say this novel is a “page-turner” is to elevate the term beyond the meaning I always associated with it – an interesting, thrilling beach read where the hero gets the girl/guy, and they sail off into the sunset putting some hair-breadth escapes behind them. Tomato Girl has none of those elements.

This novel is like a vacuum – not the Hoover kind, but the absolute space vacuum that sucks all the breath, blood, and life right out of the reader. True, I could not put it down, but I did hold my breath as I turned many pages.

Eleven-year old Ellie lives with her father and mother in, what at first seems to be a “white-picket fence” existence. Only a few hints of dark clouds float in that first chapter, but the story builds like a distant hurricane that approaches the shore. Rupert, Ellie’s dad, manages a local general store. Something seems not right with Julie, Ellie’s mother, and when she falls down the cellar stairs, she is hospitalized for a few days. This is when the family unravels, and Ellie is forced to handle too much, to keep too many secrets, to witness much more than any 11-year-old ought to.

The novel is told from Ellie’s point of view, and she grows into a woman in a matter of weeks. Her decisions and choices always seem right, but somehow fate or circumstances sometimes interfere. Pupek has captured, in a consistent and completely believable manner, the mind of a young girl on the cusp of her teen years.

The only sour note for me was the character Clara, a local woman, who lives in the “wrong” part of town and befriends Ellie. This woman has magic, clairvoyance, and the ability to raise a dead chicken. She does comfort Ellie, and she imparts some important lessons, but she could easily have done all that without candles, sprinkled salt, or buried menstrual blood.

Jayne Pupek has written an incredible first novel. Definitely not for children, the squeamish, or the faint of heart, but I give this novel 5 solid gold stars.

--Chiron, 7/8/08


trish said...

WOW! I'm dying to read this book now! Maybe I'll go see if anyone on LT is passing on their copy...

Nanette said...

wish i could afford to buy it--
sounds incredibly intense - just what i love