Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Ten-year-old Elvis examines the year her mother died in Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake. The mother had a PhD in biology and was insanely jealous that one of her cohorts became famous on a TV show about animals. Although the mother’s gig as a professor at a small college was a problem for her, an even bigger issue was her sleepwalking. She’d gone sleep-swimming in the local river a few times, a practice that led to both parents wearing bathing suits to bed just in case. But one night, the father had a few beers while bowling and didn’t wake up to the sound of the mother sleepwalking, so when the mother went sleep-swimming, she drowned. The title comes from the mother’s specialty, rabbit cakes, made with two baking tins shaped like rabbits so that one can fill each pan with cake batter, bake, and then put the two halves together with frosting and have a life-size rabbit cake (I’m picturing something like this). She would bake for any celebratory reason, from birthdays to a new moon.

Elvis reads much older than ten, and I wished that she were around seventeen instead. As a summer volunteer at a zoo, Elvis was filling out paperwork for the zoo vet. Her mother left behind an unfinished manuscript on a biological study of animal sleep, and Elvis is not only working to complete that book, but is told by everyone around her she should . . . as if that is normal for a person in elementary school to do.

Some moments are spot on, though. At school, the children have just learned the basics of sex education, including some information about sexually transmitted infections. I remember doing something similar in 6th grade, though it was menstruation, not STIs or sex. Anyway, a classmate gets a urinary tract infection, and somehow the rest of the class makes the leap that she has an STI, and rumors abound. Oh, how I remember the way rumors could fly through an elementary school classroom with lightning speed, and I smiled at the behavior (not the cruel part, just the kids).

Also, as Elvis’s sixteen-year-old sister, Lizzie, develops more mental health issues in the wake of their mother’s death, Lizzie takes to some odd behaviors that I actually saw in school myself, namely shaving her eyebrows off to reveal her true self. After a stay in a mental health facility, Lizzie brings home her roommate from the facility, a pathological liar who somehow steadies the family. The roommate assists Lizzie in her goal to bake 1,000 rabbit cakes and be added to the Guinness Book of Wold Records. Again, I knew teens who moved in oddball buddies and parents just accepted it as a thing. These weird elements hit home for me.

However, the novel would have read truer if Elvis were seventeen instead, because she takes on the responsibilities of the whole family: keeping an eye on her father, who has taken to wearing his dead wife’s lipstick and carting a talking parrot around everywhere; stopping Lizzie from hurting herself as she develops sleepwalking issues, which include sleep eating, sleep stealing, and sleep baking rabbit cakes; and Elvis attending her own grief, which will not manifest itself physically until she sees a dead giraffe chopped up so it will fit in the back of a pick-up truck.

But, if you’re thinking, “Dead giraffe? Going to bed in bathing suits?” know that yes, this is that kind of novel. Everything in me smelled “Made in the MFA” and was vindicated when I read the author’s bio. What did I smell? Largely the way that MFA students want to stand out from “tired” stories that are too familiar, so they try to add something different, often quirky, to their tales. In Rabbit Cake, Elvis is randomly diagnosed with scoliosis only to have a it go away. A statue of Jesus made out of ocean trash shows up out of nowhere (apparently the mom ordered it before her death). The titular rabbit cakes start to move — and nothing is made of any of it. Biscuit and I read this book together, and she loved all this weirdness.

However, as an MFA holder myself, I’ve grown to appreciate the way a “tired” plot can come to life under a good writer and doesn’t need the extra quirk. In fact, I’m often disappointed when too much quirkiness doesn’t mean anything in regards to character or plot. But I can see the appeal for some! If you read and enjoyed Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson or Bunny by Mona Awad, you’ll love Rabbit Cake. (I’m getting good at this game; I Googled Wilson and Awad and found both have MFA degrees, too).

20 comments

  1. Great review MP! Although I appreciate your ability to see through ink and paper dust to what’s really going on, I enjoyed both Rabbit Cake and Nothing to See Here. I adored the unusual character dynamics. I love that I failed to predict where the plots were going. Predictable reads are not my thing. Your sweet ma may be a tad quirky. (Btw I’ll be baking a rabbit cake for your next visit. 🐰)

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    • Honestly, I think Rabbit Cake would have been totally different if Elvis had been about 17 and her sister had been 12. I would have accepted a lot more without question. I loved Nothing to See Here. The main character really emphasizes how important it is to take children where they are and understand their needs, not what we THINK they need. And that audiobook narrator was excellent!

      Looking forward to cake!! ❤

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  2. That cake. It seems like a crap ton of work.
    I’m not seeing how a ten year old can do all the things you were talking about. Maybe even 14 would work better. Any ten year old that could handle all of that would most extraordinary.
    What an awful thing for the dad. The one night you have a little fun and your wife dies.

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    • It wasn’t even wild fun, just bowling and beers fun. What a bummer! The cakes aren’t too hard to make, from what I remember, but you have to frost the two pieces together. But they sister was storing them all over the place and then ended up with storage units with deep freezes. It got a bit wild!

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  3. Oh dear – I think I could handle one or two quirky elements but this sounds like a bit too much. Such a shame, as the whole topic of a bereaved child having to take on a caring role because her remaining parent’s gone to bits is potentially really interesting!

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    • Samantha Irby’s memoir Meaty covers quite a bit about her taking care of her invalid mother while Irby was in high school. I found that interesting, though she is rather bawdy at times.

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  4. This book sounds kind of fun and definitely unique. I don’t love quirkiness for quirkiness sake though and Awad’s Bunny drove me crazy so I will likely skip this one.

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  5. American schools are weird or perhaps I’m just old. No one shaved their eyebrows in the country schools I went to. And I don’t remember sex education though I suppose it was in there somewhere. Probably why I ended up a teenage father! And I think all authors are MFAs these days, all their innovation is so self-conscious, but then I suppose painters have studied painting since forever.

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    • Hahaha, no one shaved their eyebrows here, either, Bill. The sister was having a mental health crisis and just went for it. Sex education at my school was pretty robust, especially those photos of genital sores, etc. Effective! However, I know that is not normal.

      I do think MFA graduates have the ability to write some amazing fiction, but the more competitive schools seem to encourage quirkiness. Some of my favorite books are by people who came out of the Western Michigan University (a state school) MFA program. I’ve reviewed a couple of the books: Once Upon a River by Bonie Jo Campbell and Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon. Gordon won the National Book Award with one of her more recent titles.

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  6. Well spotted! I know when millions of vignettes of different types of people, lots of them working class, start to appear that we’re looking at an MA in Creative Writing …

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    • Oddly, a lot of the MFA writers in the U.S. do not appear to be from a working-class background. There’s real tension around the folks who have an undergrad degree and loads of work experience, especially in factories, etc. and the people who have an MFA and seem to have it “easy” because they have a pedigree. I don’t agree with either side of that argument — an MFA may not mean the person writes well or has good ideas, but being bitter because someone does have a degree doesn’t making the working-class person a great writer, either. I’ve heard many talk as though they are being left behind because they don’t have “papers.”

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      • Oh, these are pretty all by middle-class people, but they always seem to include a load of vignettes between chapters or whatever, as if they have to use up all the prompts and practices they did on their course, and it’s often picking up details about working-class folk. Not sure the working-class writers do that. Interestingly, a good few of the ones in the working-class writers anthology I’m reviewing tomorrow came through masters in creative writing, so some of them must break through into the courses. But they are under-represented on the whole in publishing here.

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        • Agreed. One American writer I enjoy, who has been both working class (factories, etc.) and professional (a professor) is Dave Newman. The book East Pittsburgh Downlow was just amazing. My husband and I loved all of it.

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  7. I am so impressed that you can spot an MFA a mile away! hahah Perhaps you can join them as a guest speaker and talk about why they shoudn’t make that quirkiness so obvious? I have to admit though, like your Mom I think I would enjoy those odd little bits, but I wouldn’t like the fact that they are never explained or resolved. That’s just odd.

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