Every once in a while, I stumble across a book that I cannot put down - a story that touches my soul and that will stay with me for the remainder of my days. Jayne Pupek's debut novel, Tomato Girl, is one of those books.
The first paragraph had me hooked:
"Jars line my cellar shelves. Some are filled with fists of yellow-veined tomatoes. Others hold small onions and chopped leeks, white pearls floating in an opaque sea. Sometimes the light falls on a jar of boiled quail or the slick, dark meat of a rabbit. There are unexpected moments when I see the slit of an infants mouth, or the curl of a tiny fist behind the glass, and I run up the steps, back into the open light of sky. I gasp for air and tell myself the past is a distant thing, no longer able to reach me or hurt me. And yet, at times, it seems the past will always send its long thin fingers toward me, reminding me of all I want to forget."
Tomato Girl is far and above the best book I have read this year. In fact, it may be the best book I have read in a decade. True, it is dark and haunting... so much so that when I fell asleep at 4:00 in the morning after finishing the book, I dreamed of the child Ellie, and in my sleep I wept for her. Yet Tomato Girl is also beautiful because it is a love story... not a pretty love story, but a love story of human nature and of what love leads people to do.
Until yesterday, I had not heard of this book. Where have I been? Why are people not talking about Tomato Girl? Why have I not seen this book lining recommended reading shelves? I accidentally stumbled across the book while shopping at Costco, and I purchased it without having ever heard of the author or the title, which is why I am sharing the information with others - run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore and buy this book. It is a must read because although the story is haunting, this is a story that will never be forgotten, and the ending gives hope in spite of the darkness that was Ellie's life.
Tomato Girl is the perfect book club book, and it will most certainly be my selection when it is my turn next to pick. Readers will discover much depth in the quirky and unusual characters as the story twists and turns over the course of one spring. Ms. Pupek draws a unique picture of a small southern community that suspects but doesn't realize the severity of the mental illness Ellie's mother suffers. Tomato Girl is the story of a family that comes apart while trying to hide a secret. It is the story of the community that does the best they know how for an eleven year old girl whose sole desire is to protect her father and take care of her mother. It is a story of love.
Publisher's Weekly writes: "Absorbing, unsettling... [An] accomplished debut."
After reading Tomato Girl, I have to agree with Publisher's Weekly - I am left a bit unsettled, and yet the story touched me to the core. I anxiously await future books by this author.