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Monday, December 19, 2011

'God is in the Pancakes' by Robin Epstein

From the BLURB:

Fifteen-year-old Grace Manning is a candy striper in a nursing home, and Mr. Sands is the one patient who makes the job bearable. He keeps up with her sarcasm, teaches her to play poker . . . and one day cheerfully asks her to help him die. At first Grace says no way, but as Mr. Sands's disease progresses, she's not so sure. Grace tries to avoid the wrenching decision by praying for a miracle, stuffing herself with pancakes, and running away from all feelings, including the new ones she has for her best friend Eric. But Mr. Sands is getting worse, and she can't avoid him forever.

Grace Manning isn’t having the best year. In a wholly ironic twist of hypocrisy, her father did not practice what he preached and left the family for a woman he met at bible group. Six months have passed and Grace’s mother swings between blistering hatred for Grace’s deserting father, and constant complaining about her thankless job.

Grace’s older sister, Lolly, continues to date a boneheaded boy called Jake, even though all signs point to heartbreak. And Grace’s best friend, Eric, is rising in the popularity ranks at high school. Ever since Eric became one of two sophomores to join the basketball team, girls have been paying attention to him and Grace isn’t sure how she feels about his divided attention.

The one bright spot in Grace’s anti-social life is Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands, or ‘Frank’ as he insists she call him, was a Korean War vet now suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease in the Hanover House home where Grace works as a candy striper. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s) is a motor neuron disease that will eventually leave him bed-ridden, trapped in his slack body but with a fully functioning mind.

Frank has become a father figure to Grace since her own father abandoned the family. Frank is funny and charming, with a quick-wit and no-nonsense attitude … and when he asks Grace to do a terrible, awful thing to ease his suffering, she can’t refuse him.

‘God is in the Pancakes’ was the 2010 YA contemporary novel from Robin Epstein.

This title has been beckoning me from the TBR pile for months now, but I resisted reading. The blurb hinted at heartache, and I was never in the right mind-set to jump head-first into a, no doubt, compelling but heavy novel. But, finally, it felt like the right time (to borrow a metaphor, this pancake was ready to be flipped). And, oh boy, is this novel sublime!

Told in first-person narration, this is the novel of a dying man’s incredible request to an already mixed-up girl. Grace Manning already has enough problems on her plate – between her sister’s cheating boyfriend, hormonal surges for her best friend and unanswered messages from her adulterous father – when her new/old friend, Mr Sands, asks her to take his life. What follows is a quick timeline that sees Frank Sands deteriorate before Grace’s eyes as Lou Gehrig’s disease turns his body against him.

With Frank’s request weighing heavy on her mind, Grace turns to God. She hasn’t had much to do with the big guy ‘upstairs’, since her mum is agnostic and it was always her dad taking the girls to Sunday mass followed by pancakes at the local IHOP (an American version of ‘Pancake Parlour’, for those of us down under). But since Grace’s dad didn’t really lead by example, Grace kind of figured the whole ‘good Christian’, praying and kneeling thing was over for her. Little does she know that when she most needs answers, God is the only one she’s willing to ask questions to …

Having an answer is a comfort. It's when you start asking questions and those questions pull threads in the larger fabric, you're forced to wonder what you're left with. And for people of any age, it's scary to think the fabric of the universe - or the universe as you've always believed it existed - can just unwind, you know?

The title of Epstein’s book is a wee bit misleading and suggests that the ever combustible topic of religion is a major focus. Yes, Grace does turn to God for answers … but she receives no definitive’s, and throughout the novel she is unsure and firmly on-the-fence about her belief in Him and His role in her life. She’s between a rock and a hard place with Frank’s request, so she turns to a childhood comfort – praying. Epstein is in no way shoving God down reader’s throats. Instead she’s using him as a crutch for a confused girl. And, actually, I kind of liked that Epstein wrote a little back-story for Grace’s dad’s affair, a nice little nuance that the woman he was cheating with is someone he met at bible study. It reminds me a little of that bumper-sticker joke: ‘I've got nothing against God, it's his fan club I can't stand.’

If I had any complaints about the book, it's that the relationship between Grace and her father was left a little too open-ended. It seemed like Epstein was deliberately dropping hints about Grace's dad trying to reconnect (and perhaps repent?) but this part of the narrative just sort of fizzed towards the end, and I would have liked a little more conflict and confrontation.

I also liked that the real conflict of the novel, Frank asking Grace to help him die, was watered down somewhat by Grace’s many problems. This could have been a very heavy, depressing novel if not for side-stories about Grace’s sister, Lolly, and her best friend, Eric. All of which add up to a sort of ‘softening the blow’ when based around Frank’s request. It’s also a means by which Grace can put her life into perspective – seeing that the truth is never easy, and that some things are worth fighting for … two lessons she comes to learn through her interactions and conundrums with Frank and his death wish.

I knew I’d love ‘God is in the Pancakes’, but I didn’t know how much. I laughed, I cried, I want to read absolutely every other bit of YA that Epstein comes up with. A beautiful novel, not for the faint-hearted, and definitely one to be read in the right mind-set, about a young girl coming to grips with God, life and perfect pancakes.


5/5

2 comments:

  1. so glad you loved this one :)

    it's one of my faves this year

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  2. Ooh beautifully written review!! I actually read your review on GR already, but I just re-read it. Haha! I'm so excited to be finally reading this, now that I asked for it for Christmas. :)

    Just, yeah. You also described the book and its main components really well, without spoiling anything that wasn't already revealed in the synopsis.

    ReplyDelete