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June 20, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake begins with Rose Edelstein, aged eight, helping herself to a bite of cake and becoming overwhemed by an awareness of her mother’s profound sadness. This awareness is devastating, and has enormous implications: that her mother is human, that life is complicated, that Rose is powerless to control the world around her. Childhood naivete ends at this point, when Rose realizes that she can taste people’s feelings in the food they create– her mother’s sadness makes family dinners unbearable, she eats a friend’s sandwhich and is “envious… that this lightness was where she came from”, and so the vending machines at school supply her with sustenence, the relief of their bland and innocuous factory flavour.

Aimee Bender is known for her short stories, and this seems like the perfect premise for one of these. The novel reading like an extended short story itself– the perfection of the details, the minute observation, the sense of play and whimsy, the genre-bending, the fantastic. And yet this is decidedly a novel too, with great expansiveness, development, and enormous weight. Cake-like, airy and solid.

There is so much that Bender gets absolutely right. Her narrative voice is a stellar achievement, Rose reminiscent of Ramona Quimby as the book begins, and yet undercut by a darker tone that takes over as the book proceeds. Bender manages a perfect balance of wide-eyed child and wry observer (see “[Dad] always seemed like a guest to me. ‘Welcome home,’ I said.” vs. “he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves”.) The story is perfectly timeless, flying on its own steam, freed from the cumbrousness of period. It has the tone and appeal of a YA novel– elements of A Wrinkle in Time in addition to Ramona. And yet, YA this is not– the sadness is heavy, the emotions complicated and awful, and too much for even Rose to understand.

With amazing acuity, Bender shows Rose’s reaction to her burden of empathy– how she eats an entire slice of the cake in an effort to convince herself that everything is fine, that she made up her feelings, but Rose only feels her mother’s sadness more, and how she tries to console her mother but doesn’t know what she wants or needs, and how Rose tries to explain that she can taste a hollow in her mother’s cake but can’t explain it well enough, and how after so much explaining, she eventually keeps it to herself.

Rose’s ability to taste feelings actually becomes secondary as the novel progresses, fading to the background– this is a novel with most of its two feet in reality. Understatement makes Rose’s affliction almost plausible, and we’re not meant to consider it too much anyway, but the story continues to be about her family’s dynamics, and how Rose deals with knowledge of her mother’s sadness as her older brother begins to retreat into his own world. It’s also about food, taste and eating, and where our food comes from, how little most of us actually consider this. And it’s about childhood, and things better unlearned, and a yearning to return to a simpler place that has been tainted by what is known now.

And so onto the bandwagon I jump, late for the party as always. Go Aimee Bender, whose novel is perfectly unlike anything else, and also perfectly perfect.

5 thoughts on “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender”

  1. Alyssa says:

    I feel so out of the loop as this is the first time I’ve heard of Aimee Bender. Regardless, this sounds like it might be my first post-baby read. I miss reading so much. (Though my husband saw me breastfeeding and reading a story in the New Yorker the other night and called it a turning point!)

    1. Kerry says:

      I’ve never read Aimee Bender either, but have heard so many people raving about her story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. And congratulations on the reading/bfding combo. It’s tricky, but now that I’ve mastered it, I actually plan to breastfeed until Harriet moves out.

  2. Julie says:

    I loved this–working on a blog post.

  3. JK says:

    Sounds delicious! And also like Like Water For Chocolate — I’m sure not in style, but the premise of being able to taste people’s emotions is the same.

  4. Amy Jones says:

    Oh, I somehow missed this the first time around. “Like a long short story” is how I would have described An Invisible Sign Of My Own, as well. Good thing she’s so good at short stories!

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