Review: Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
Algonquin Books, 2008
$23.95, Hardback - 298 pgs.
ISBN: 1565124723

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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posted by julia

31 comments; 18 subscribers

Sunday, September 21, 2008 / 23:11:31
To win GUD's copy of Tomato Girl, post here with your answer to the question... If you were going to run away with someone for their food (especially their fresh vegetables), who would it be? Entries will be considered through Sunday, October 5 (11:00 p.m. PDT). Open to anyone in the U.S./Canada.
Monday, September 22, 2008 / 19:15:09
It would have to be my childhood neighbor A. Ray Graham. Many's the time during harvest when we'd get the call - "Send the children over with the wagon - The sweet corn's ripe, and I have too much!" Or maybe it'd be tomatoes, or butter beans, or peanuts. And I can't leave out watermelon! Now tthose were great, flavorful fresh vegetables! And a wonderful, generous neighbor, whom I always suspected planted too much on purpose.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 02:15:05
I would have to run away with my daughter Amy. She has provided me with loads of fresh veggies from her garden over the years.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 02:39:50
I would run away with my friend Jane who has the most beautiful garden ever!!!!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 05:16:14
My boss's husband has a green thumb, but even better than that he is a great cook.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 08:56:54
Rachael Ray; she must have a garden at one of her houses, right?
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 13:47:59
my husband has an amazing fresh vegetables and herb garden
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 18:36:02
I would have to run away with the older lady who lives next door and always gives me things from her garden!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 / 18:45:47
I would run away with my husband.He has the green thumb of the family.
Friday, September 26, 2008 / 14:38:33
I would run away with my friend Hannah, she has a huge garden and is a fabulous cook!
Saturday, September 27, 2008 / 13:59:59
my mom . shes a great gardener, canner, and cook.
Sunday, September 28, 2008 / 19:35:38
I would have to run away with my husband, who buys produce for a grocery chain (lots of organic fare) and grows tomatoes, peppers, and herbs regularly.
Monday, September 29, 2008 / 15:52:11
I think it would have to be Martha Stewart. She always seems to have grown her own veggies and fruits and she would certainly know how to cook them. Or at least, arrange them into a fancy centerpiece!
Wednesday, October 1, 2008 / 19:24:59
I would have to run away with my Father in law. He lives on 10 acres and has an amazing garden full of vegetables and some fruit!
Thursday, October 2, 2008 / 15:56:52
I would pick my dad. When I was little, he used to have the GREATEST gardens and would grow the sweetest tomatoes. Nothing tastes as sweet as hot, picked off the vine tomatoes. (Dad would carry a shaker of salt in his pocket and we would eat our tomatoes right there...tomato juice dribbling down our faces...great memories!!)
Friday, October 3, 2008 / 11:20:45
I would run away with Paula Deen for sure. She so entertaining and cook down to earth food. I love her.
Friday, October 3, 2008 / 11:29:19
Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" which was one of the best non-fiction books that I have ever read. The cool thing about Kingsolver, is that she is so absolutely brilliant, that if we ran out of food, she'd know what we could forage for out in the wild. Also, she has an amazing talent for taking two weeds and a clump of dirt and turning it into a gourmet meal.
Alicia Webster
Saturday, October 4, 2008 / 09:33:11
I would have to run away with Mr. McGregor from Peter Rabbit. Remember him? Seriously, his garden must have been quite something if Peter continuosly kept going back for more. Yep, Mr. McGregor is mine.
Saturday, October 4, 2008 / 14:01:13
I'd run away with Alec Baldwin and his delicacies.
Saturday, October 4, 2008 / 20:57:26
I would pick my sister Judy. She has 10 kids and a big garden
Saturday, October 4, 2008 / 21:19:48
The TRUTH?? It would have to be with the lady with the foreign accent who was selling caviar and pate down at the Whole Foods store... It definitely wouldn't be with my dad -- most of HIS fresh veggies ~I~ wound up hoeing, and planting, and weeding, and picking, and canning -- leaving a strong appreciation for organic grocery stores.

I'm intrigued by your description of the book, wondering how the author could have improved it with a minimum of 'seasoning' (i.e. would it have required a bit more: age; experience; time-in-harness; rejection letters??)...
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 09:28:15
My father; He has a knack at growing fresh vegetables.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 13:33:21
My neighbor lady shares her zucchini with me....I guess I could run away with her lol.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 14:57:43
i would have to say martha stewart shes a good cook.....i just hope i dont end up in the
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 15:59:28
I would run away with my mother in law she has a great garden. Thanks for the giveaway.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 17:54:52
Jamie Oliver - The Naked Chef...need I say more...
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 19:35:24
It would have to be Tyler Florence! I have a mad crush on him.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 21:42:05
I would run away with my daughter, she really loves the outdoors and gardens, thank you.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 22:29:08
I would run away with the cucumber man. I love cucumbers and I eat them all year round. I even have them in my backyard garden. During the summer, I make tiny sandwiches with them. Thanks for the contest.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 / 22:43:04
I would run away with Martha Stewart.
Sunday, November 16, 2008 / 20:21:05
And the winner of the Tomato Girl raffle was... jelly15301! My apologies for the belated public announcement; hope you've been enjoying the book. :)

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