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).