The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (New York: Doubleday, 2010. 304 pp.)

Author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a New York Times Notable Book; An Invisible Sign of My Own, an L.A. Times pick of the year; and Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, won the SCIBA award for best fiction and an Alex Award. Her short fiction has been printed in many publications allowing her to receive two Puschart prizes.

A Case for Food and Family

Food is one of the most basic needs for human beings, the symbol of community, and an opportunity for aesthetic and gastronomic excellence. Food is the central ingredient at the dinner table and, by default, the reason around community. When I think of the qualities that define a nuclear family, the dinner table comes to mind.
At the table, a family connects; it recaps the day; and it nurtures healthy relationships. Of course, such musings offer a romanticized view regarding the meaning of a family dinner. Perhaps, some families find more meaning in TV dinners and hectic schedules, but the occasional family dinner seems to carry significance.

Tasting Emotion

What would happen, though, if the perfectly cooked meal betrayed the secrets a parent tirelessly works to conceal. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender ponders this very scenario. Bringing the magical realism of José Saramago and Gabriel García Márquez to popular fiction, the author’s book is as accessible as it is fantastical.
The tome’s protagonist, Rose Edelstein, realizes at a young age that she can taste the emotions of the people who have prepared her food. As such, both family dinners and school lunches become almost unbearable.
Bender illustrates Rose’s budding tastes:

“But the day was darkening outside, and 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 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…” (9-10).

Where food functions somewhere on the spectrum between a necessary utility and fine art form for most people, Rose suffers under the weight of secrets no child should be expected to bear.

“Truth was, it was hard to see George eat those cookie halves without hesitation. Without tasting even a speck of the hurry in Janet’s oatmeal, which was so rushed it was like eating the calendar of an executive, or without catching a glimpse of the punching bag tucked beside every chocolate chip” (64).

Not only does Rose encounter the feelings of those preparing the food, she is able to distinguish between the factories that process and regions that grow the food.

A Family Affair

Coupled with this sixth sense in the narrative is Rose’s complicated relationship with her older brother, Joseph. Blessed with intelligence beyond his years, Joseph prefers the comfort of his room to conversation and community of any kind save his one friend, the aforementioned George.
As the story unfolds and Rose grows up, the family secrets that tortured her grow into surrealistic symbols of a family, perfect on the outside, but cracked on the inside.

The Particular Sadness of this Book

Although Bender writes from an excellent premise, I find The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake to be flawed. First, the purpose of magical realism is to critique systems, institutions, culture, and/or relationships. In this story, the fantastical portions do not serve any greater social commentary than to remind the reader that family life is difficult.
Second, the book ends much too quickly. With quick chapters and 300 pages, Bender is unable to create much depth in the characters. With the twist she creates at the end of the narrative, the book really needed a microscopic examination of the characters.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender focuses on the importance of food in uniting a family. By imagining a character with a unique sense of tasting other’s emotions, the author manufactures an entertaining read much more accessible than other authors in the magical realism category. If you enjoy the genre and are looking for an easy read, I recommend this book.

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