I am an avid, unapologetic, and passionate fan of Aimee Bender. I have read both her novels and short stories and have been entertained and impressed. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the book that introduced me to Bender and her work. I loved this novel when I first read it in 2010. I promoted it and obsessed over it and encouraged friends to read it. I have had the great joy of arguing its merits and debating the author’s style and choices with fellow book lovers.
When my Book Club chose this title for its June 2012 book, I was thrilled for the excuse to read it again. And, happily, I loved it even more upon rereading.
So, now that I’ve gushed, here’s why I love it.
I was first attracted to the premise that on Rose Edelstein’s ninth birthday she discovers she has a gift. She can taste people’s emotions in food they prepare. That premise alone was enough to capture my attention, but the gorgeous way Bender writes about discovering such a gift, hooked me completely.
But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as the first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction…Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons — seemed like a cover over something larger & 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.”
If this had been one of Bender’s short stories, she could have stopped the story on Rose’s first day. Over the course of those few pages, I understood the complexity of a young girl “tasting” her mother’s smallness – the empty hole in her existence. I loved Rose immediately, primarily because of the horror she feels. She didn’t seek, nor does she want this kind of knowledge. “Please take it out,” she begs.
But Bender writes something deeper than a short story based on a clever premise. She is writing about family, its bonds and its breaks. What appears perfectly lovely on the outside (say a lemon cake) contains untold layers of complications, sorrows and missteps.
Right away we know that there is something different about Rose’s brother Joe. Anti-social to the extreme, brilliant but distracted, Joe seems to instantly qualify for the Autism spectrum, although that word is never used. Rose worships him and seeks any bit of his attention she can get. Perhaps it’s because she understands the bond between Joe and her mother.
Mom loved my brother more. Not that she didn’t love me – I felt the wash of her love every day, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water. I was her darling daughter; Joseph was her it.”
Bender taps in perfectly to a young girl’s feelings of always being second best. Even as she matures, she has to come to grips with those feelings as well as the faults of her parents. Rose’s mother has serious flaws, both parental and moral. Rose sees it all (tastes it all) and has to find a way to live with her mother’s faults and weaknesses. She finds a way to hold her mother in her heart, to accept her, without judgment.
After all, she had birthed us alone, diapered and fed us, helped us with homework, kissed and hugged us, poured her love into us. That she might not actually know us seemed the humblest thing a mother could admit.”
Rose doesn’t pity herself but she sees, feels (and tastes) the underneath of things. These are real family dynamics at work under the guise of fantasy and magical realism.
It’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about what happens with Joe.
My brother had taken to disappearing. Not in the way of a more usual adolescent boy, who is nowhere to be found and then arrives home drunk, with grass stained knees and sweat-pressed hair, at two in the morning. No. It would be the middle of the afternoon, airy and calm, & Joseph would be home, and then not home. I would hear him…and then I’d hear nothing.”
In the character of Joe, Bender makes the book turn from something slightly odd to something truly surreal. Joe can make himself disappear. And, it seems, this is what some of my friends and fellow reader/reviewers find so troubling. I admit, upon my first read, I wondered if this storyline when a bit too far. It didn’t prevent me from loving the book, but I could relate to some feelings of confusion.
But not this time. On the second reading, I found all the brilliant clues Bender dropped along the way. I felt Joe’s pain and disorientation as much as I felt Rose’s. His need to escape his gift was obviously much more extreme, but realizing this added layer only makes me appreciate Bender’s writing that much more.