Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
During Nanowrimo 2008, Karen Harrington posted an article that Janet Finch wrote to encourage participants, “Dear Author – ‘Make Trouble for Your Characters.’ ” Jayne Pupek did just that for Ellie Sanders, an adolescent girl growing up in a home with a mentally ill mother. Ultimately, she is the one who suffers when her father’s will to fight for his family is lost when Rupert chooses to have an affair with Tess, a local young woman known to all as the Tomato Girl. From that point forward, things quickly get messier and uglier for Ellie each day. One thing after another kicks her into the dirt and she has no one to help her but herself. With all that she experiences during the months that the Tomato Girl engulfs her family, will Ellie find the courage, the heart, and the hope to go on?
Ellie is a troubled girl. Her father, once her stronghold, brings Tess home to live with them after her mother fell down the stairs and is hospitalized. Her mother is either bi-polar or is a manic-depressive (my diagnosis). Ellie blames her mother’s accident on herself because she chose going to her daddy’s store to see the new baby chicks instead of going down into the basement to get something for her mother. Julia was in, who was pregnant, was in a good place before the accident, but that all changed when she found out about Tess. Ellie knows how to work with her father to handle her mother to keep her as happy as possible, she doesn’t know how to deal with Tess or her parents with another woman in the middle. She is unsafe and insecure. Most of all, she is virtually alone because there is only so much dysfunction that an outsider, especially another child with a disapproving mother, can handle. So, what Rupert did out of exhaustion and a selfish desire to feel alive kicked off a tragic series of events that could not be stopped from trampling Ellie.
I truly love and care for Ellie. She is a young girl who does her best to hold herself and her family together. It is unfair to her that her mother’s health and welfare is placed squarely upon her shoulders. It is difficult to imagine a positive outcome for her. She must be strong to overcome her life’s circumstances and it is difficult to stay strong in the face of so much death, neglect, and the horrific inner workings of her mother’s inner world. What made this novel so difficult for me to believe were Rupert’s actions. This novel takes place in Virginia during the mid-20th century. Not much was known about mental illness, but it is hard to understand how a historically warm and loving parent would leave his child alone in that situation. I can understand wanting to escape a difficult life. I can’t understand going from one horrible situation to the other. There might not have been many other romantic options for him where he was, but Tess was no prize. Her past and her own known medical condition made getting involved with her a bad bet and he was gambling with Ellie’s life. I found his choices unforgivable, especially after the discovery he makes in the family’s cellar.
Reading Tomato Girl was anxiety inducing. It was very well written, but I could only read so much in a single sitting. I was continually waiting for the other hammer to fall on Ellie and it always did faster and harder than I anticipated. This made the novel compelling, but there were places where Ellie’s hard knocks felt gratuitous. A girl’s first menstrual cycle is a right of passage, but I felt that the manner in which it occurs and how it is discovered by others was unnecessary. I also found the storyline surrounding Ellie’s brother was just a little too bizarre after the local police got involved. The aftermath of that plot twist never felt as true to me as the rest of the novel.
Tomato Girl tells the story of what happens when a child is forced to be the parent. It is an unnatural state. Although not always successful for me, I found Ellie to be a most compelling character. Jayne Pupek captured life in a small Southern town very well. The supporting characters, specifically those who loved and cared for Ellie more than her own family, added touches of charm that were almost more important to the reader than they are for Ellie. It is enough to give the reader hope that Ellie won’t end up like Aileen Wuornos or worse. I would both recommend reading Tomato Girl and following it up with a light-hearted novel. You’ll need it.
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