Everyone has a favorite breakfast place. In some regions, Denny’s reigns supreme. In others, IHOP takes the title of most loved. There’s Perkins too. In the Midwest and also Oregon and Washington State, Village Inn ranks as many’s favorite breakfast place that also serves lunch and supper (or dinner, if you prefer). Take a moment and imagine something before reading further. Imagine that you are stuck in your favorite breakfast place. That everytime you attempt to leave, you just sort of bounce back into the place. You’ve had everything on the menu, at least three times over. You watch others leaving and stare at them with a sense of longing. You build multiple coffee creamer sculptures. Rinse. Repeat. Once you have this set in your imagination, take it one step further. Think of that ex that you just can’t seem to forget or even to fully get over. Think of that best friend you once had that betrayed you, but you also can’t quite forget and get over. Now, put them across from you in that booth in your favorite breakfast place. That’s what The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes is.
A story of three people stuck in a Village Inn.
Atkinson takes a radical departure from his first novel, Bones Buried in the Dirt, a series of linked short stories with a child narrator coming of age. The thing that he didn’t depart from is the ability to open up a character, layer by layer and allow the reader to crawl into the mind of that narrator. In The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, the main character and narrator, Cassandra is an adult, with a personality fairly intact. There is no coming of age. Atkinson slowly peels away the different parts of Cassandra for the reader. Yet, he leaves her a mystery to the reader, something to think about after the book is done.
The title is the first thing that makes this novel linger in your mind. But, there are other novels out there with amazing titles that definitely do not live up to their promise. The setting and the premise of The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes is the second thing that makes this story stick with you. I’ve never read a story with a setting that’s both so banal yet so fascinating at the same time. This also does not guarantee a good story though. I’ve read books that initially had a setting that intrigued me. Then the setting ended up being the best thing about the book. The characters fall flat. The dialogue is stilted and boring. This isn’t the case with this story. Atkinson has a remarkable ability to keep the dialogue whipping along. In fact, much of the story is dialogue, between the main characters and between Cassandra and herself.
The main thing that makes this book the compelling piece of literature that it is, is the main character Cassandra’s story telling. Cassandra makes up stories all the time, both in her head and to tell her ex and his new love, her prior best friend (see? I didn’t have you imagine that for nothing!). This isn’t a new habit of hers, only formed after becoming stuck in the Village Inn. She plays a game with Kate, that they used to play all the time. They make up a story about someone, their offense, then pass judgment on them.
“The girl wasn’t even really that heavy, but she had no reason to be sporting a belly-barer. Unless, that is, unless the belly in question refused to be chained by a mere shirt. Regardless, her poor choice did her no justice, and made her subject to our irrelevant authority.
“Easy,” Kate said. “She’s never mastered spatial relationships. She is literally unaware that certain objects do not fit within the confines of certain other objects.”
“Is that an offense?”
“Clearly,” she responded. “I’m offended.”
“Then what’s the sentence?”
Kate paused, pursing her lips.
“One hundred years doing nothing but trying to put various shaped blocks into different shaped holes. Early parole is possible if she begins to grasp spacial concepts.
“Interesting,” I said. “I’m not used to you showing mercy in this game.”
She shrugged. “It’s been a while. Anyway, your next one is pit stains over there.”
But, the stories that she makes up by herself are intricate and layered. There’s the manager afraid of Village Inn, who stays in her office. There’s the dishwasher who is actually royalty but worships plates. There’s the elves. There’s the pancake that keeps getting remade.
“I like to make up stories for people. Wild, exciting things that couldn’t possibly have happened. Anything realistic isn’t any fun, and the more interesting the better. Also, the less actually connected to the factual people the better. My histories are much more interesting than what actually happened. Who cares that the bus driver on the number two route has driven the same bus for 30 or more ungodly years because he’s a hard worker? Boring! I’m much more interested in the possible fact that he once sold the red Chinese the secret of manufacturing mercury amalgam dental fillings to pay for his daughter to go to Juillard. Anyway, the things I make up feel truer about the various people involved, whoever they happen to be, than the actual things that happened to them.”
She tells stories, like about three people in two booths that mask at first the story of her and Thomas and Kate. However, right after telling it, she does reveal that it’s about her. Earlier in the story, it comes out that they ended up at the Village Inn together because they were together to discuss the custody of Cassandra and Thomas’s dog, Daedulus.
I read this book in May. Eventually, I will be driven to read the story again. Two questions linger in my mind. One, does Cassandra tell the stories to hide from herself? Or does she tell the stories to reveal herself to herself? Two, does what I think causes the conclusion of the novel really cause it? Or is there something I missed?
If you ever have hung out late into the night at a Denny’s, an IHOP, a Village Inn, a Perkins, read this book. The conversations echo of some of the conversations you probably had. You’ll end up absorbed in the conversations and diversions the three characters think of and Cassandra’s stories.
If you’ve never hung out at one of those places, maybe have never even eaten at one, read this anyway. You’ll get stuck into the story as much as Cassandra, Kate and Thomas are stuck in the Village Inn.
Bravo to David S. Atkinson for not falling under the curse of the second novel.