Cover Image: Rabbit Cake

Rabbit Cake

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Member Reviews

While our book club believed this to be a well written and thought provoking book, AND we had quite an interesting discussion about this selection, we did not think that describing it as a humorous book was accurate.  For the most part, we did not find the book funny.
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Annie Hartnett has put together a coming-of-age tale of a different sort with her novel "Rabbit Cake." A mom, known for crazy rabbit-shaped cakes, drowns while sleepwalking. Or was it suicide? Elvis Babbitt, a genius of sorts, aims to keep what's left of her family together. That includes a suicidal sister and a dad who can't get past wearing his dead wife's perfume and other things. As Elvis searches for answers, she finds comfort (in various sorts) in her small town. Hartnett brings her storytelling to life with quirky characters, oddities and a genuine sense of humanity.
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Rabbit Cake left me with so many emotions that I don’t even know where to start with this book. There is so much to like, and so much to laugh about.  Here are some things I loved about this book:

No Romance or Thriller Gimmick

The experience of reading Rabbit Cake was different than reading one of the many mysteries I’ve reviewed recently, because while I was addicted to this story, it wasn’t that I was waiting for a big twist, I genuinely enjoyed spending time reading about The Babbits, so much so, that I didn’t want this book to end. Yes, there were questions that I wanted answers to, but overall, I just wanted to see what Elvis and her sister were up to.

Beautiful Writing

Annie Hartnett’s writing is beautiful! I absolutely love ten-year-old Elvis Babbit, who narrates the book. She’s wise beyond her years, which gives the book’s prose a fresh jovial tone that I would say vaguely reminds me of Emma Donoghue’s Room.

The Cast of Complex Characters

Hartnett also surrounds Elvis with a delightfully complicated family. While Elvis’ family is odd, it colors her life and gives us an amazing cast of characters to work with. The interaction between Elvis and the characters in the book are what drive the story.

Chief amongst their traits is how they each deal with the loss of Eva. Her father copes with grief by wearing their mother’s lipstick, and Lizzie goes through a period of “sleep eating” that seems almost as comical as it is creepy. For Elvis, that means finishing her mom’s book on the sleep cycle of animals.

Even the characters that come in and out throughout the book are interesting. None of them felt flat and none of their actions or dialogue felt forced.

The Pacing

The “grief timeline” given to Elvis by a guidance counselor keeps the book moving at a steady pace so I don’t feel like the book ever lags on any one particular incident. Even with the brisk pace, it feels like the characters are fully formed.

The instances that Elvis recounts throughout two year period the book spans are a mix of funny and sad moments. At times I found myself laughing for several pages only to later find myself sobbing my eyes out.

Bottom Line

If you are looking for a family drama, narrated by a precocious child I think Rabbit Cake is the book for you. It’s got great characters, it’s funny and sad, and it’s just very beautifully done. I highly recommend it.
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It is always so exciting when a debut novel receives multiple starred reviews as was the case for RABBIT CAKE by Annie Hartnett (Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly).  And, almost exactly a year ago, I read and enthusiastically blogged about Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht which is also published by Tin House. 

Hence, I had high expectations for RABBIT CAKE, a story of coping with loss for the Babbitt family; 11 year-old Elvis, her older sister Lucy and their Dad all deal differently with the drowning of their mother/wife while sleep walking/swimming. I very much liked the precociousness and naïveté of Elvis as she tries to process the changes in her life and reactions by Lizzie (binge eating) and her Dad (wearing lipstick; adopting a pet).  It was clear that the Mom was a cohesive, if slightly eccentric, force for this family. The story, described as "darkly comic," does get strange, though.   And overall it was a little too much for me.  Read RABBIT CAKE by Annie Hartnett if you like a somewhat absurd and unrealistic streak to novels you choose.  Let me know what you think of this well-written story - your favorite part and what was most original and moving for you. 

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When Elvis's mother burns the rabbit shaped cake she makes for all birthdays and new beginnings, it marks a bad start to her tenth year. Elvis's mother dies in a freak sleep swimming accident. Then her troubled older sister, Lizzie, starts sleep eating and almost poisons herself night after night. Her father starts wearing her mother's lipsticks and robe in his state of grief, and then adopts a parrot from the local pet store because it can mimic his late wife's voice. The place where Elvis takes refuge is the local zoo, where she works as a volunteer. Like her mother, Elvis is interested in the science behind animal behavior. This inquisitive nature encourages Elvis to finish the book on animal sleep patters her mother started writing. It also leads Elvis to investigate her mother's death. She can't believe the death was a random accident. She winds up consulting psychics, local men her mother might have been having an affair with, and the school guidance councilor. Elvis figures she has eighteen months to figure everything out-- that's how long she expects she'll grieve. Of course things are a little more complicated than that.

This book is ok. I would say it aspires to be literary fiction, which is not my favorite genre. I enjoyed Elvis's voice, but I struggled to connect with other characters, especially her grieving (in kind of a nutty way) father. There isn't much of a plot, which made the story difficult for me to enjoy. I'm also confused at how Lizzie's sleep eating is handled (she's institutionalized), especially when it's explained that it's a genetic condition.
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Elvis Babbitt shares a birthday with the King of Rock ‘n' Roll, which is why her mother insisted they name their second daughter Elvis. On her tenth birthday, her Mom burned the rabbit cake, and warns Elvis that this might be an unpleasant year for her. Rabbits are an omen of good luck, and her mother liked to celebrate new beginnings with a bit of good luck – but a burnt rabbit…that might not be so lucky. Omens and belief in such things as spiritual rebirth and psychics might seem out of character for a woman like her mother, but nobody makes perfect sense all the time.

Her sister Lizzie is a sleepwalker, like their Mom, but their Mom is also a sleepswimmer. Elvis and Lizzie’s Mom swims in her sleep one night and then disappears. It’s months later when they find her caught in a dam.

Elvis is the storyteller here, her sweetly naïve voice mixed with grief, confusion and frustration. So many questions she has, each one a little heartbreaking, almost all without answers. Thus there’s a bit of melancholy that permeates this, which seems to surround Elvis - much like Pigpen always seems surrounded by his own personal cloud of dust - but there are also moments which are purely sweet and good, and even occasionally comical in this charming debut novel.

They each wear their grief in different ways, Lizzie’s sleepwalking worsens, becomes more dangerous than before, the father brings home a bird that talks in a voice that sounds just like their mother, Elvis delves into what she views as the mystery surrounding her mother’s death. Even their dog is caught up in the family’s grieving. Their grieving process takes this quirky family and their friends on some messy, if occasionally funny, adventures. This isn’t really a sad or mournful story, but a story of the process of finding a way to their new “normal” and the light that shines, showing them a way to hope, and life on the other side of sorrow.

Pub Date: 07 Mar 2017

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Tin House Books
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