rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jayne Pupek's "Tomato Girl" was a book I couldn't put down. Well-paced, funny, and authentic with vulnerable and memorable characters, Pupek throws the proverbial rocks at her protagonist, 11-year-old Ellie Sanders throughout the book -- Ellie's troubles never seem to relent, except when she lets them go at the end. Beginning in a circular fashion with her mentally ill mother("a lily caught in a hurricane was how Daddy described Mama. If we calmed the winds around her, she would be fine") having a breakdown at the outdoor food market in town, Ellie recounts the events that led to her father leaving the family with "The Tomato Girl" a 17-year-old, fragile epileptic incest survivor. Then Pupek rushes furiously to the end where Ellie is taken into foster care and is told to let go of her troubles by Clara, a clairvoyant who saves Ellie's spiritual soul.
The heart of the book takes place during Holy Week. Ellie's pregnant mother, Julia, falls down the cellar steps trying to retrieve an onion (Ellie believes this is her fault because she wanted to rush to her dad's store and pick out a new Easter chick instead of getting her mother that onion). Rupert Sanders manages the general store in town and has gotten close to Tess, the tomato girl, who sells him her produce. After Julia falls, Rupert has Tess come home with him (to help out his wife), which leads to tragedy for everyone involved. Ellie is now caught in the hurricane of her father's creation, as she struggles to help her mother, compete for her father's love with Tess, and witness her mother attack Tess and her father, both verbally and physically. She manages to hold on because of her two constants: Jellybean her baby chick and Mary Roberts, her know-it-all best friend, but these two don't remain by her side as the narrative unfolds.
I loved how Pupek named all of her chapters: "Market Day," "Bad Letters," "Spoon,"The Gun," which allowed some clever foreshadowing. Pupek is also a poet and her taut verbal skills shine throughout the novel, especially when she uses analogies ("She (Julia) buys cabbages as twisted as a man's fist. Red radishes the size of a doll's heart.")without ever going overboard. Her images are grounded in the real world so I always could picture myself in the scene with smells, tastes and texture.
"Tomato Girl" is sad, yet hopeful and is the book that should have been "The Secret Life of Bees". It's one of the best books I've read all year and I'm rooting for it to be a big hit.I'm writing a much longer review on "Tomato Girl" for The Pedestal Magazine's August issue, please stay tuned.
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