Elvis Babbit’s mother makes rabbit cakes. No, that’s not an euphemism for a vegetarian carrot cake, and no, they do not in any way resemble the smiling, cloud-frosted concoctions for sale at an Easter bake sale. They bake in a three dimensional mold and, when frosted properly, resemble a living rabbit (Elvis’s mother even fills the cakes with red jelly which oozes out of each slice like bunny blood). The day before Elvis’s tenth birthday, her mother burns the rabbit cake.
Rabbit Cake is a big-hearted debut, but not like a Valentine’s Day heart, all tidy and pretty and brightly colored. The giant heart beating at the center of Hartnett’s story is complicated and dark. After their matriarch dies, the Babbits must find a way through their grief, a journey narrated by Elvis. Each family member grieves in their own way, and Hartnett finds unexpected ways to make readers laugh through loss.
Lizzie has inherited their mother’s sleepwalking and begins raiding the fridge on late-night binges she can’t remember in the morning, while Elvis tries to finish their mother’s research on the sleeping habits of animals. Their father brings home a parrot from the pet store, named Ernest, who can imitate their dead mother’s voice with an uncanny precision. There are more surprises (some of which involve a zoo, the Guinness Book of World Records, and a jail break), but I don’t want to give too much away.
Elvis is a charmingly weird narrator. She has a head for facts and a huge heart, but does not always connect well with her peers. I relate to Elvis’s weirdness (though I don’t think I’ve ever been as secretly cool as Elvis). We’ve all known kids like Elvis, who just have to wait for their bodies to catch up to their souls. When Hartnett read from her book during a presentation at Winter Institute, she called herself a weird little girl as well and explained that Elvis’s name was actually a childhood nickname. After visiting Graceland as a child, Hartnett was impressed by the shag carpet, the multiple televisions, and the glitz. “I thought, that guy had class,” she said, and made hundreds of booksellers chuckle.
Sometimes a character represents a childhood self. Sometimes they represent who we are afraid of becoming, or who we are ashamed to have been at one time. Readers can identify with each of Hartnett’s characters; we all relate to the fear of being left alone by the one we love (through death or another means of fate), to guilt over not preventing something outside of our control, and to feeling like an outsider.
This is a story about grief, about love and the sometimes unrecognizable shapes it takes, about marriage and how each one is unique, about growing up and realizing that dead doesn’t mean gone. But, as much as this is a story about loss and death, this is also one about celebrating the good things, the little things. Honor the solstice and the first day of school, birthdays, and each new beginning. Not because we never know which will be our last (even though we don’t), but because life needs to be celebrated. Sometimes with cake.
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