Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
Hardcover: 298 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (August 26, 2008)
Tomato Girl deals with difficult subject matter - mental illness, abuse, racial issues and criminal activity - but Pupek weaves a beautifully written story. The characters are so real you quickly become absorbed with their world and their story.
Written from the point of view of 11 year old Ellie Sanders, you instantly fall in love with the heart-wrenching tale of this poor little girl. You feel her pain, as well as her hopes and dreams.
The story takes place during the early 1960s in a rural town in Virginia. Julia Sanders is a beautiful, but troubled, wife to Rupert and mother to Ellie. All of Ellie's life, her mother has suffered from some sort of mental illness, many times requiring sedation. While pregnant with a second child, Julia suffers a deplitating fall, resulting in the need for someone to help around the house.
Rupert brings home Tess Reed, the teenage farm girl who supplies home-grown tomatoes to be sold in his general store, as a caretaker for his wife and daughter. It soon becomes clear Rupert is having an affair with Tess. Almost from the instant Tess comes to live in the Sanders' home, a cascade of horrible events changes the family forever.
Throughout the book we watch Julia deteriorate further into a delusional world of her own. We see Rupert transfer all his love and attention away from his daughter and wife, and onto the teenage tomato girl. And most saddly of all, we watch Ellie deparately trying to hold her family together, all the while holding on to deep, dark family secrets. Ellie is forced to bare burdens that would cripple most adults. I felt so much love and empathy for this poor little girl, praying she would finally have the happy life she deserved.
Although Pupek has written a truly dark story, Ellie is full of hope and unconditional love for her family. The tangled lives of all the characters is truly complex, but Ellie's voice keeps the story from becoming too difficult to read.
I have read over 100 books this year, and Tomato Girl is in the top 5. This is an unforgettable book from a first time author, and I look forward to reading more of Pupek's work in the future. She has a talent I'm sure we will all be hearing more about.