Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: aimee bender, book reviews, books, coming of age, literary fiction, literature, the particular sadness of lemon cake
The premise of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is so clever and surreal that it’s hard not to be taken in. A girl, tasting the lemon cake her mother has baked for her ninth birthday, tastes not just the cake but her mother’s emotions. She can barely choke the cake down. After this, she can taste emotions in everything she eats. She stands around the school cafeteria hoping that she’ll be able to pick up food from the lunch lady who adds to her food a solid sort of sadness, becomes a connoisseur of the vending machine, and one day ends up in the emergency room because she is trying to remove her mouth from her face.
Although the premise is presented to the reader with no real explanation, Rose realizes early on that she can’t tell anyone what she’s tasting in food. There is, really, an entire world in each bite that Rose takes, and from the first bite of that lemon cake, the blessing and misfortune of Rose’s gift are clear.
[…] as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.
What is so horrifying for Rose in that bite of cake is the way her mother seems to be not entirely there – that Rose can taste not just that her mother is sad, but that she isn’t fully present in her life. At eight years old, though, Rose can barely understand what is happening when she eats food, let alone find a way to understanding her mother’s emotions. Although she knows even the most minor details and disruptions of the lives of those around her, Rose keeps her gift – or curse, depending on your view – a secret, only telling her brother and his friend George. Bender’s writing here, with George conducting “experiments” on Rose to test what emotions she can taste, and how accurately she can describe the people making her food, is entertaining but short-lived. George is a figure throughout the novel, though often in the background, but his interest in Rose’s abilities die off, along with the experiments and any hope Rose had of coming to understand herself.
The weakness to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is this habit of Bender’s, of dropping details and stories into the novel but not following through. The text feels unbalanced particularly near its close, when Rose is drawn into her brother’s life and his own hidden talents. Hints about the lives of Rose’s family members are tossed to the reader in rapid succession, suggesting that Rose is not so alone as she’s long felt; but Bender never fully explores the lives of Rose’s family members and what their stories mean in relation to hers. The end of the novel is so sudden that it’s hard not to flip through the final pages, searching for something more than is given us; but there’s only a fading away of Rose’s story, not a conclusion to it.
When Bender’s writing is good, though, it’s very good, almost addictive. By the time the novel ends, Rose’s story has shifted into a traditional coming-of-age story, with her ability to taste emotions seeming not so different from someone else’s talent for writing, or painting, or business. Earlier in the novel, though, Bender does an extraordinary job of parsing Rose’s emotions and her unwillingness to see what is forced before her. Others, like George or a friend she has in high school, might view her talents with admiration, but for Rose they’re more of a curse.
I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.
Watching Rose grow, and the way she matures – sometimes earlier than she should, thanks to everything she has had to learn, so unwillingly – is fun reading. Bender’s novel may not remake the coming-of-age story, but it does fit itself into its strictures in new and sometimes exciting ways.