Elvis Babbitt, who shares a name and birthday with the King of Rock & Roll, is the precocious and obsessive protagonist of Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake. Elvis’s peculiar proclivities stem in part from her mother, a failed naturalist who settled for teaching in community college in Alabama. Mom herself harbors quite a bit of quirk. For one, she always makes her daughters, Elvis and Lizzie, rabbit-shaped cakes complete with raspberry blood for their birthdays. But that isn’t the only weird thing about Mom.
Mom is a sleep-swimmer. Instead of just stumbling around when she sleepwalks, she goes for a dip in the river. This happens so frequently that she goes to bed in her bathing suit, and her husband sleeps in swim trunks.
That is, until one night she drowns, and Elvis, Lizzie, and Dad’s worlds are all thrown off-kilter. Elvis doesn’t believe her mother’s death was an accident, and so, amid her research into the sleeping habits of the animal world, Elvis goes on a quest to find out who her mother really was and so to figure out what really happened to her. Of course, family weirdness gets in the way. Lizzie and Dad both deal with their grief differently. Dad adopts a parrot that can mimic his deceased wife’s voice. Sometimes he puts on Mom’s favorite shades of lipstick. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s grief has caused her to inherit her mother’s unusual somnambulatory adventures. Except instead of swimming, Lizzie eats or even bakes!
In a novel full of child psychiatry, dying giraffes, naked mole rats, psychics, and world-record baking stunts, what really holds the story together is Elvis’s clear, sweet voice. She is confused and frustrated, and what makes this book shine is that she is both completely believable as a child, and she is a compelling narrator. The reader feels her grief, her curious hunger for the world, and also her disbelief that a world so abundant in wonder could take her mother away.
Annie Hartnett’s debut novel Rabbit Cake is a quirky, sweet, full-hearted exploration of grief and family, and it is on sale today, March 7th, 2017. Get it while the rabbit cakes are fresh from the oven and the raspberry blood is still warm – from Tin House books or your local indie bookstore.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC copy from Tin House’s First to Read program in exchange for my honest opinion.