Rabbit Cake

344p. Tin House. Mar. 2017. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781941040560.
Rabbit cake, made with a special aluminum mold, was for special occasions in the Babbitt family. Looking back, Elvis thinks that the first sign of danger was when her mother burned the ears of the rabbit cake meant to celebrate Elvis's 10th birthday. Six months later, Elvis's mother drowns, ostensibly by sleepwalking into the river. The scientifically minded protagonist investigates her mother's death, making sense of the taxonomy of death and grief with curiosity and wry humor. Her guileless observations are often hilarious: hints of her mother's promiscuity emerge, pieced together from a memory of her mother "pretending to milk" a man and the mystery of a parrot that perfectly imitates her mother's voice. Meanwhile, Elvis's father begins wearing his dead wife's makeup, and Elvis's 16-year-old sister Lizzie's sleepwalking grows ever more dangerous. When a sleeping Lizzie is discovered climbing into a hot oven, their desperate father sends her to a mental institution. Elvis's salvation comes through volunteer work at a local animal sanctuary. While she is an accurate, observant narrator, with an abundance of knowledge about the natural world, she has little success in understanding people; she puzzles over psychology texts and consults a telephone psychic. Hartnett adeptly conveys a full picture of this family's emotional turmoil, tinged with the sincere hope of a child and the rising anxiety of an adolescent.
VERDICT Teens who enjoyed the engaging voice of 11-year-old Flavia in Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie will love Elvis Babbitt.

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