Review: Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
Algonquin Books, 2008
$23.95, Hardback - 298 pgs.
Tomato Girl is a fairly standard coming-of-age story, occasionally daring in some aspects, but, on the whole, rather mediocre. It covers territory that many such stories do -- parental sex and infidelity, insanity, viewpoint-character bad behavior -- but delves into them more deeply and disturbingly than a lot of adult novels about preteen girls would dare or care to, usually without losing its sense of realism.
But it's that 'usually' that makes all the difference; Tomato Girl is a thoroughly almost-good novel. On so many levels, it reaches for and almost achieves something special, but falls just short. The experience of reading this author's first published novel was, in fact, rather like watching someone play a sport they're just good enough at to have gotten onto the team; you can see so many ways they could fail, but they succeed just often enough that you still get the feeling of having your hopes dashed when they flub it. And unfortunately, being able to see the author's process so easily kept me from really getting absorbed in what might otherwise have been quite a captivating novel.
The novel begins with a prologue from the point of view of the narrator, Ellie, as an adult, then jumps in near the end of the main story arc for the first chapter, then begins at the beginning in the second chapter. I assume this time-layering and difficult, stuttery distance is supposed to give us a feeling of what it must be like to be an early-middle-aged woman trying to face the events of a traumatic childhood, but it is not skillfully enough done, and merely serves to make the book difficult to get into. Likewise, I can see why the author chose to tell the reader nearly everything that's going to happen in the story in that first chapter (Ellie's father will fall in love with a teenage tomato-grower, get sick of dealing with Ellie's crazy mother, run away with the tomato girl under unpleasant circumstances, and leave Ellie to deal with the increasingly out-of-control mother (who keeps a baby in a jar) on her own, with emotional support only from an elderly psychic with the wrong color skin) -- it gives us a sense of the narrator and her direct matter-of-factness, and a proper feeling of impending doom -- and, done right, I could see it working very well. But in this case, it merely serves to rob the book of suspense and make any foreshadowing that happens later seem irrelevant. All in all, there are just too many amateurish mistakes for the author to get away with the out-of-the-ordinary structural and dramatic choices that ought to have made this novel special and memorable.
However, there are enough good things about it to make it worth reading if you're into emotional twistiness. The narrative is reasonably evocative, if a bit repetitive, the setting is thorough, and the characters have some depth and grab. Tess, the tomato girl, is interestingly portrayed and recognizable -- even if you don't really want to recognize her -- and the narrator's unusually-but-humanly flawed parents and friend(s) make a good supporting cast. (In fact, I found Ellie to be the weakest character, though I assume she is meant to be the strongest.) Those supporting characters, along with some strong emotionally-charged images, are Tomato Girl's strongest points.
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