Summary: For eleven-year-old Ellie Sanders, her father has always been the rock that she could cling to when her mother's emotional troubles became too frightening. But when he comes under the thrall of the pretty teenager who raises vegetables and tomatoes for sale at the general store that he runs, Ellie sees her security slowly slipping away. Now she must be witness and warden to her mother's gradual slide into madness.
Told from Ellie's point of view, Tomato Girl takes the reader into the soul of a terrified young girl clinging desperately to childhood while being forced into adulthood years before she is ready. To save herself, she creates a secret world, a place in which her mother gets well, her father returns to being the man he was, and the Tomato Girl is banished forever. Tomato Girl marks the debut of a gifted and promising new author who has written a timeless Southern novel. -- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
I have seen great reviews for TOMATO GIRL by Jayne Pupek on a number of blogs the past few weeks. I was just thrilled when Ms. Pupek contacted me about reading her novel. I have always been drawn to books about young girls, and I especially love when they are written in first person narrative. I knew when I started this book that it was not going to be an easy read or a very happy subject matter, but I still thought it sounded so good!
Well, TOMATO GIRL was a very good book and I really enjoyed reading it; but I admit that I hesitate to use the word "enjoy" when talking about this novel -- it is one of the saddest stories that I've ever read. But don't let that deter you from reading this beautiful novel because I think you will ultimately end up loving it. It is a wonderful story about a very special (and resilient) young girl. In fact, I actually felt uplifted and very hopeful when I finished this novel.
I think that even the most stoic reader can't help but be affected by the story of Ellie and her family. However, as a mother of a young girl, I was particularly disturbed. I know that I do everything in my power to protect my daughter from pain (sometimes too much so), but I can't imagine a little girl growing up in the environment that Ellie did. Her mother was mentally unstable; and her father just couldn't cope any longer. He ends up falling in love with the "Tomato Girl" and bringing her into their already dysfunctional home. My heart just went out to Ellie because she loved both of her parents so much, and they were constantly letting her down. She always felt that she had to protect her parents. (Often times, she was forced into taking care of her mother instead of the other way around or hiding things about her father.) As a result, she had to grow up way too fast. I just felt sick about the constant guilt that Ellie had to carry around because of her parents.
I really started enjoying the book when the character of Clara entered the picture. There is a reference to Clara on the first page of the book, but the reader doesn't really get to know her until about two thirds of the way through the book. Clara is an African American woman who knows "magic" and can heal people. Ellie wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the black part of town, but she finds herself needing to visit Clara and her husband. Ellie found much-needed comfort and love in their house, and Clara even managed to do some healing (both physical and mental.) I just loved Clara and Ellie's relationship!
Ms. Pupek was a former social worker, so I'm sure she's seen a lot of horrific family situations. It saddens me to wonder how much, if any, of this novel was based on actual events. Based on reality or not, Ms. Pupek did an excellent job of describing Ellie's feelings and creating sympathy for her from the reader. I also think Ms. Pupek described the abuse and mental illness sides of the story extremely well. I especially appreciated how she conveyed Ellie's guilt about her parents' behavior and how Ellie was forced to take on their problems as her own.
This book would make an excellent book club discussion book. My book club has read a few books like this, and we all enjoyed them a great deal. There are so many themes to discuss including mother/daughter relationships, mental illness, abuse, adultery, escapism, etc. Even though the subject matter is depressing, there is also something very endearing about Ellie and her resilience. Click here for the discussion questions -- they are excellent! As some further enticement, check out the book trailer:
Make sure you come back tomorrow because Jayne Pupek will be stopping by. She's going to share some of her favorite recipes with you just in time for the holidays!