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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl's Picks for 8/3/09

Jeremy Richards

It helps to have an ally more clever than yourself. So, when a novel's protagonist proves witty and incisive, you marvel at their style as much as the plot. Today, Seattle-based writer and librarian Nancy Pearl shares two novels with strong and clever characters. Nancy Pearl talks with KUOW's Jeremy Richards.

With the notable exception of Harriet Welsch, the eponymous heroine of "Harriet the Spy," the classic novel for young teens by Louise Fitzhugh, I don't believe I've ever encountered a more delightful young sleuth than 11–year–old bicycle riding chemistry whiz Flavia de Luce, the intrepid narrator of "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" (Delacorte, 2009), a first novel by Alan Bradley. Early one summer morning in 1950, in the garden of Buckshaw, her family's estate in the British countryside, Flavia discovers a man on the verge of death, lying among the cucumbers. His last word is "Vale," which Flavia knows, means "farewell" in Latin. When her reclusive father is arrested by the local constable for the man's murder (for a death by natural causes it is not), she takes it upon herself to discover the real perpetrator of the crime. Flavia's detecting skills would be the envy of Sherlock Holmes (or at least Watson), and her bravery is amply demonstrated during a frightening encounter with a dastardly villain who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Truly a heroine to admire! "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" makes perfect summer reading — it's gore–free, very funny in places, nicely written, not too sweet (despite the title) and narrated by a real charmer. Here's how Flavia describes how she knows that her adversary is lying to her:

"It was a lie and I detected it at once. As an accomplished fibber myself, I spotted the telltale signs of an untruth before they were halfway out of his mouth: the excessive detail, the offhand delivery, and the wrapping–up of it all in casual chitchat."

And here she's trying to figure out how to get out of the dangerous situation she finds herself in:

"I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me: "If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!" Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located. I'd have to think of something else."

I can't wait for the sequel.

One of my favorite characters in all of fiction is Mrs. Hawkins, the greatly overweight, greatly capable, and greatly opinionated narrator of Muriel Spark's light–hearted novel, "A Far Cry from Kensington " (New Directions, 2000). I've always felt that were I to meet the now elderly Mrs. Hawkins today, she would have morphed into the sort of woman that Maggie Smith played in the film "Gosford Park" — tart, loyal to her friends, easy to confide in, and impossibly self–assured, yet, for all that, incredibly easy to love. Here's how Mrs. Hawkins describes herself:

"I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God."

And here are just a few of her opinions that we're treated to in the course of the book: On losing weight ("only eat and drink half of whatever you're given"); willpower ("you should think of will–power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained"); on being capable ("don't demonstrate it too much; you'll incur resentment from those who think they're your betters.") There are many more, and we would all no doubt be better people for taking her advice.

The heart of the novel, recounted in a long flashback, takes place in 1954, in the world of literary London. Mrs. Hawkins lives in a rooming house in Kensington, then a down–at–heels part of the city, and works as an editor for a small publishing company. One of her great dislikes (among many) is bad and pretentious writing, and Mrs. Hawkins believes that the very worst of the hacks whose writing she would so characterize is Hector Bartlett. One day, when she happens upon Bartlett in the park on her way to work, Mrs. Hawkins accuses him of being a "pisseur de copie," someone who "vomits literary matter." Not unnaturally, he takes great umbrage at being referred to thus, and becomes Mrs. Hawkins' great enemy, not only getting her fired from two publishing jobs. but also, quite possibly, doing even more serious harm to one of Mrs. Hawkins' fellow boarders. Or did he? With Spark, it's hard to know.

Spark is a spare and meticulous writer; she brings her creations to life in a simple sentence or two. One female character in A Far Cry from Kensington is described as being so forgettable that "she seemed to live in parentheses." But it's the character of Mrs. Hawkins who demonstrates Spark's talents at their finest. I first read this novel more than 20 years ago and loved it then. Rereading it for "Pearl's Picks," spiffied up in a new cover from New Directions, I found it as buoyant and satisfying as I did back then.

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