Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Thanks to blog reader Annie Long for the excellent recommendation.

This is a sad, sweet book with an accurately written first-person child protagonist struggling with loss and grief, and with a decidedly odd view of the world, possibly reflecting neurodivergence. (Someone at school calls her ‘retarded.’) If this sounds a lot like the mad originality of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought so too. That earlier novel was so unprecedented it blew readers’ minds; and while this one has a lot in common with that one, I don’t think that makes it a bit unoriginal. It’s still a pretty wild (and wildly unusual) model; there’s plenty of room for more surprises in this area.

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” It was one of the wonderful things about her mother Eva that she made rabbit cakes for all occasions – believed in celebrating all the small events of life. Elvis is ten-and-a-half when her mother dies, and she has questions. For one thing, how could such a good swimmer have drowned? Her mother was a frequent if not constant sleepwalker, and “she was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.” Her mother was a gifted scientist. And besides, her mother’s psychic had always been very clear that Eva would die by suicide.

Elvis is clearly a young person who craves control, and so she sets out to take care of things around the house, because her father surely isn’t; he’s taken to wearing Eva’s lipstick and her bathrobe around the house, and mostly ignoring his daughters. Elvis’s fifteen-year-old sister Lizzie has moved on from beer drinking and breaking her best friend’s jaw (in three places) to a particularly self-destructive sort of sleepwalking (although no sleepswimming). Elvis dutifully sees the counselor at school once a week during recess, until she says something especially disturbing and gets upgraded to daily sessions. Ms. Bernstein instructs her that the grieving process generally takes eighteen months, and so dutiful Elvis marks her chart counting down the days until she will not grieve her mother any more. She also works on finishing her mother’s massive book (working title: The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber). Elvis knows a lot about animals – enough to annoy everyone around her, until she gets a volunteer posting at the zoo. She comes across an entry in The Reference Guide to Porcupine Anatomy and Behavior in the zoo’s library that mistakenly relates the echidna to the porcupine when it is closer to the platypus. She makes a note to write to the publisher.

You get the picture: this is a child precocious in some areas and a bit hopeless in others. She indulges in magical thinking, but what child doesn’t? and for that matter, who in the throes of grief? Despite Elvis’s story being completely heartbreaking at every turn (warning, friends: this family also has an old dog. Will it never cease? Don’t ask what happens to the giraffe), it’s also frequently hilarious. There is a strong current of absurdism running through it. Lizzie the sleepwalker and breaker of jaws is institutionalized, and returns home with a pathological liar who the distant and negligent father allows to move in. Lizzie decides what she needs is to set the Guinness World Record for most number of rabbit cakes baked. Most, but not all of them, will need to be decorated. Elvis is driven mad by the delicious smell of baking cakes – which she associates with happy memories of their mother – but she is not allowed to eat any of the cakes, which Lizzie must preserve for her world record. I won’t even tell you about the troubles Elvis gets into at the zoo. Or what she discovers about her mother’s sex life.

Delightful, absurdist, ridiculous, heartbreaking; laugh-out-loud funny in the most morbid ways, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Case in point: the reason Elvis’s school counseling gets upped to daily sessions.) I was frequently quite angry at the adults in this child’s life who consistently, near-criminally fail her; I usually keep my cool with fictional characters better than this. In other words, it’s a deeply involving story, with some very wise points to make about grief in the end. That ending is surprisingly upbeat – or maybe it’s not surprising at all.

I’ll be thinking about Elvis for a long time, and about this singular, weird, troubled, endearing little family. I’m remembering Have You Seen Marie?, another gorgeous meditation on grief in fictional form. Cisneros said about that book that she did not conceive of it as being for children. And even though Rabbit Cake‘s star is a child, I don’t think this is a children’s or YA book, except to the extent that any book is right for the reader who’s ready for it. (Tin House, who does not publish children’s books, has marketed it as simply fiction. Although these labels may be worth less than we think they are.) It’s quite a deep-thinking novel, with nuances to satisfy readers of all levels of maturity, especially those who may need to laugh and cry in the same sitting.

Rating: 9 librarians aptly named Reasoner.

6 Responses

  1. Oooohhhh, Julia!!! WOW! Just wow. You have outdone even your exquisite self. This stunned me speechless–what else to say? Not a thing. But I will anyway, haha. You gave me another new word, neurodivergence, thank you for that.
    I felt like I had read the book all over again–it affected me deeply, as well…I am very impressed that you have the vigorous skill and refined facility to describe what happens without reporting word for word. As anyone who ever had to write a book report in 4th grade well knows–this is extremely difficult to accomplish. Yet you make it look easy. Other readers will surely be compelled to pick up this book after reading your review. I think the author would be pleased. I surely am.
    I appreciate your willingness to read my recommendation, and I was surprised to see my name . Reading books, reading about books, talking about books–I could spend the rest of my days doing only this and be in bliss. Again, I thank you so much. As the old saying goes, I am not worthy!

    • I am thrilled that this review pleases you so, Annie! Thanks again for the tip!

      Funny you say 4th grade, because I clearly remember the assignment – a book about a president; mine was JFK – and how the difference between writing a report about JFK, versus a review of the book, clicked for me. Maybe it all started then. 🙂 I have my college students in ENGL 101 write a book (or movie or TV series) review, and it’s true, it’s hard. I’m glad I’m passing muster.

      • There’s an anecdotal story my mother used to tell about me, that in the 4th grade, I wrote a book report on a non-existent book. I made it all up. Kinda like the word game Fictionary where you make up a fake definition for a word and see if people can guess which definition is correct. I don’t remember that, but that’s part of a mom’s job, right?!

        • Interesting distinction to grasp at a young age, report re book review. Speaking of JFK, I do remember the trauma of spelling ‘assassination’ wrong on a poster. I was humiliated and so angry at myself. But I did learn early to read it three times, read it three times, read it three times, haha!

        • I LOVE the fictional book review!! That is amazing – and a great possible assignment. Outstanding.

  2. […] Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett […]

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