By Bethany Dixon
I admit it: I judged this book by its cover. The enigmatic title alone would have pulled me in, but what I noticed was a presentation that would seduce any foodie – a robin’s egg blue background behind three perfect tiers of lemon cake, with chocolate frosting hidden between the layers like a secret.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake tells the story of Rose Edelstein, who discovers on her 9th birthday that she is able to taste feelings in food – the feelings of the person who made it. Rose discovers this with the first bite of her birthday cake (lemon, with chocolate frosting) that her loving, ebullient, talented mother has made for her. Hoping what she tastes is imagined or a mistake, she tries to convince herself that the cake is as it should be. Despite her best efforts (“…and with each bite I thought – mmm, so good, the best ever, yumm”) she tastes “absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows.”
Rose encounters, among other emotional eats, a sandwich that screams “love me,” cookies full of anger, and her mother’s adultery-tainted roast beef. And Rose’s own cooking? When Rose, some years older, bakes a cake for her mother’s birthday near the end of the novel, she still dreads taking the first bite. This is what she feels:
Eight, whispered my cake. You still just want to go back to eight, when you didn’t know much about anything.
The moment in the book where Rose discovers a meal that tastes contented and joyful (a quiche at a local French bistro) is one of the only moments in the book where the reader is allowed to exhale. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is far from a fast-paced thriller, but Bender is so good at maintaining a tightly-wound tension throughout that the reader becomes exhausted along with Rose, at experiencing the characters’ many anxieties. Rose describes her frustration and despair as feeling “forced to read her mother’s diary against her will.” Add to this the fact that her grandfather, father, and brother all have similarly incredible abilities (I won’t spoil it by naming them), and you’ve got one talented, dysfunctional family.
Aimee Bender and her characters understand the world in metaphors. It’s not that she uses metaphors as a cheap trick to ferry her reader from one idea to another– it doesn’t feel contrived. While reading this book, I felt awed that Bender was able to coax these characters out of the shadows long enough to capture them. Her characters seem scared of their own fragility and complexity; rather than speaking of themselves or each other in ordinary terms, they chose to explain their innermost perceptions through the identity of some external object.
For example, Rose’s mother can only explain her adoration of her brilliant and troubled son, Joseph, through metaphors.
She called Joseph the desert, one summer afternoon when we were all walking along Santa Monica Pier, because, she explained, he was an ecosystem that simply needed less input.
Rose, desperate to know how she ranks next to Joseph’s self-sufficiency, asks her mother what the other members of the family are. Rose, her mother says, is the rain forest – lush, needing lots of rain. Her father, a boulder; strong and stubborn. Rose’s mother describes herself as the Big Island in Hawaii – it has seven different climates, she explains. This seems unfair to Rose – why does her mother get to be everything at once? In a rare moment of self-assertion, Rose tells her mother:
I want to be the ocean instead of the rain forest, I said on the drive home.
Sure, said Mom, whose mind was long gone into somewhere else.
The metaphors in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake are so strong that the line between the tangible and the intangible disappears. The lemon cake Rose eats is not only a vehicle for her mother’s sadness; it becomes her mother’s sadness. It is the same with the other emotions Rose is force-fed. The emotions become the food; the food becomes the emotions. If Bender used only similes, the impact would be far less.
It’s rare and delightful to find an author who brings elements of the fantastic into everyday life quietly and without trumpet blasts. The only similar author who comes to mind is Haruki Murakami (who is, as it happens, one of Aimee Bender’s favorite authors). Bender’s lucid, succinct prose makes her whimsical plots seem grounded, and her extraordinary characters empathetic.