Aimee Bender’s “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

If Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and the story Chocolat have anything in common, it’s that I was constantly watering at the mouth throughout the narrative. If The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and The Corrections have anything in common, it’s that their last lines shine as ones I won’t soon forget. And if Lemon Cake shines in one particular way, it’s by doing what so many lesser paranormal romances du jour struggle so hard to accomplish, all the while falling so short of Bender in the attempt: there is a core of magic tucked within the concrete world surrounding these characters, folded in like an egg yolk into batter.

The conceit—that our narrator, Rose, can taste feelings in her food, left there by whoever cooked it—is baldly exposed by the tenth page, so it becomes clear early on that this special skill (Rose’s euphemism, not mine) is a means to an end for Bender. Through Rose’s voice, the whole spectrum of this taste bud discovery is conveyed, from shock to confusion to frustration to eventually adjusting to it, a child’s tired acceptance of something they first fought against. Here, perhaps, is what’s most grounded in realism throughout the story: Rose simply learns how to live around her skill, one that feels more like an affliction. She learns to keep quiet about it and not expect anyone to understand or to help and to generally coexist with the chronic condition. No race against the clock to “fix” it, or eradicate it, or try to understand why such a gift chose her. Rather, Bender (in her deftest gestures of the novel) has created a character that acts as anyone would—because undramatic adjustment is what humans do. It’s what they’re best at.

There are characters throughout the book who act less like I think humans would: Rose’s mother and father, Lane and Paul Edelstein, strike me as particularly wooden and archetypal in their “parent-who-doesn’t-connect-with-their-child” roles. That is not to say that there aren’t really beautiful scenes of these two interacting with Rose, however. Take Bender’s subtle moment where Rose and her father have been out on a drive, and are now struggling to make conversation:

We sat in the car, facing the low branches of the big ficus tree. He didn’t make a move to go and I didn’t either and for a while we just sat there, staring at the corroded handle on the garage door, with the useless string tied to it for no reason.

In a relatively thin novel, it’s obvious where Bender saves space by writing loads into what’s left unsaid. (That’s another reason the mother and father in this book grate on me occasionally: they expose too much by speaking in caricature-like parent-isms. They show too much on their faces and don’t allow us to be left guessing.)

In addition to her silences, Bender charms us with her occasional unexpected, twisted little pockets of reality: moments I can easily picture occurring but ones that read oddly in a narrative, which perhaps smacks of the most concrete reality of all, which, in turn, is all the more important in a novel dealing with elements of the magical. Take this moment in the stock room of a grocery store:

I spent an hour in the back room of the market, which smelled of leafy greens and cold cardboard, going over shipping receipts with the customer service representative. She told me how she really wanted to sing in the opera.

The lack of functionality in these snippets lends them the very believability that this semi-surreal story needs, and give us something besides Rose’s singular predicament to cling to. Not to mention that Rose’s brother, Joseph, has plot points of his own strewn about the piece, and we as readers follow them like a chain of unconnected dots, hungry for what we might find, and for whatever might satiate our endlessly searching, literally hungering protagonist. Bender makes their pursuits our pursuits, before we could find ourselves anywhere else but deeply entrenched in them.

Because, quite simply, we care. We care about seeing this family together, not because they’d be any happier that way, but because we’re so tired of seeing them splintered. To see them assembled again would, by book’s end, be an experiment worth its risks. And while I won’t speak to the specifics of the ending here, I will say that Bender makes her occasionally meandering pace pay off, and makes us thankful for the time we spent waiting—because the experience of reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like what Rose describes eating in a restaurant is like:

I allowed myself the extravagance of leaving a restaurant if I could not bear what I found on my plate, and instead did my father’s trick by asking for a to-go box and putting all the food inside it, with a plastic knife and fork, and handing it outside to someone homeless who did not have the luxury of my problem.

Because some predicaments are particularly sad ones.

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