Sebastian Cody lives in the shadow of a memory neither he nor his family can escape. When he was 4 years old, his father answered the doorbell, leaving the pistol he’d just cleaned and loaded on the table. Fascinated by this grownup toy, Sebastian picked it up and wandered into his 6-month-old sister’s room. She clapped her hands upon seeing him, and delighted, he clapped back. The pistol’s kick knocked him across the room. When he came to, sore, frightened, and bewildered, he gradually realized that the pistol had fatally shot his sister.
In the 10 years that have passed since then, Sebastian has repeatedly been told it’s not his fault. But he knows that’s not true. Everybody in his school and neighborhood knows what he did. He can see their knowledge in their faces, hear it in their words. Every day. So he hides in his room, watching 1980s movies and reading book after book. And every day, he tells himself that a bullet caused the problem; another can solve it. Late at night, he often rides his bike to the ramshackle trailer he’s chosen as the place where he’s going to do the deed. Consults his inner voice. Soon, it says. But not yet. As school ends and Sebastian’s only friend, the super-rich Evan Danforth, is going to Young Leaders Camp, the voice is poised to say now. But then Sebastian meets Aneesa, the daughter in the neighborhood’s newly arrived family. She wears a hijab, the first one he’s seen in person. She’s also friendly, and her Muslim father is delighted that she and Sebastian get along so well, because Sebastian’s casual conversation reveals the depth of the literary knowledge he has picked up on his own. Aneesa , it turns out, is an entrepreneur. When she discovers that Sebastian is a genius at making pizza, she persuades him to start a pizza-making series on YouTube. After a slow start, it becomes incredibly successful, despite the trolls that write terrible things about Muslim girls. All is well until school starts, and Sebastian hits a boy for jeering at Aneesa. In hours, the kid reveals online that popular chef Sebastian murdered his sister. Viewings plummet. Aneesa, who is upset by Sebastian’s violent and unnecessary defense, points out that they’re just friends, not girl-and-boyfriend. It seems that all is lost. And the voice finally says, Now. Tonight.
What makes this more than an issue book is its middle section, in which the friendship of Sebastian and Aneesa grows, and the pizza business takes off. Sebastian can do anything with pizzas: breakfast pizza; dessert pizza; and of course a huge variety of lunch and dinner pizzas. The ingenuity and humor of these pages, plus Sebastian’s gradual realization of what a “real” family can be like, are a delight to read. The portrait of Sebastian’s despair is also well done, and if the book’s conclusion is a little too close to a Moral Tale, it’s well worth the read. Should you be a pizza fan, you will be inspired by Sebastian and Aneesa’s recipes, though you will have to work out the proportions for yourself.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.