The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

February 1, 2011

I would not have picked this novel up if it had not made the Tournament of Books 2011 shortlist. The inside flap teaser would have frightened me away if I ever picked it up:

The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures a lush and powerful story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.

This does not sound like a book I would like. But I am trying to read as many ToB contenders as possible before the close of the tournament. Bender’s was one of the first of the contenders available at the library, so I crossed my fingers and started with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

A good thing about the ToB is that it does occasionally shove snow down my collar, an invigorating if not always enjoyable experience. The thing about this book, however, is that it simply was not a book for me. The writing is supple and incisive, the characters are lovably flawed. But the main premise here is a magical gift and the focus is on familial relationships. That should not be a problem, it is not a problem. The problem here was wholly my own…well, and as good as this book surely is it is not a masterpiece. A masterpiece about a magical gift for tasting the emotions of those who prepare the food maybe would seduce me. This one did not. I just was not in the mood.

Rose Edelstein narrates the story of her and her family’s life from an early age. Her story begins on her ninth birthday when her mother bakes the eponymous cake. Rose’s gift reveals itself as a taste of emptiness in her spoiled birthday cake. The source of her emptiness is a dull and routine marriage. Rose’s father is a successful professional, withdrawn and conservative, while her mother has been unable to settle on a career.

Early in the book it seemed Rose was a bit too precocious:

I, at five, or six, would crawl into [my mother’s] lap, like a cat. She would pet my hair, like I was a cat. She would pet, and sip. We never spoke, and I fell asleep quickly in her arms, in the hopes that my weight, my sleepiness, would somehow seep into her.

Can that really be what a six-year old would hope? I am probably being uncharitable because narrating a story from a child’s perspective and being limited to childish observations is not easily pulled off. This should make for interesting comparisons to The Room, assuming they meet in the ToB. There are not many other examples so glaring and, to be fair, the story is narrated from the future, so the perspective is that of an older Rose remembering to her childhood. Some metaphorical flourishes should be allowed such a narrator. I am surely too stingy.

Rose’s grandmother is available to her only by phone. The grandmother is reclusive and, thus, neither travels nor accepts visitors kindly. She occasionally sends care packages of random household items she no long wants. It is kind of amusing, but deprives Rose of a grandmotherly presence in her life.

When a teacher had us draw our grandparents for an assignment on ancestry, I monopolized the black crayon, and my picture had been of a thick black box with grating, lines extending outward to indicate voice.

This seems a little too precious to me. There are other things that did not seem to me to fit tightly. Or maybe, it really is that I am just the wrong audience.

There are some poignant father/daughter moments. Some poignant mother/daughter moments. Some poignant brother/daughter moments. Even some poignant daughter/friend-of-the-brother moments. The book has poignancy to spare, but my own subjective experience was that too much poignancy ruins the baked goods. Rose is so often striving to make a connection to her family and, meanwhile, is struggling with this inexplicable supernatural ability. The special talent for detecting emotion could be a metaphor for depression or could be an exploration of what happens to the most sensitive souls or could simply be an interesting story idea that will thrill some.

Beyond the admittedly minor points above, I did not come to any new insight onto family dynamics, I did not mark out any sections of prose as particularly beautiful, and I was not eager to see how it would end. In the end, it was, to me, a bit empty.

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. It so scared me that I took a knife from a drawer and cut out a big slice, ruining the circle, because I had to check again right that second, and I put it on a pink-flowered plate and grabbed a napkin from the napkin drawer. My heart was beating fast.

Rose discovers her mother’s emptiness and, in food made by others, she seems mostly to discover sadness, anger, and other similarly negative emotions. The love evident in her friend’s sandwiches, made by her friend’s mother, is an exception. However, for Rose, the positive emotions she discovers in her friend’s sandwich only intensifies the starkness of the negative emotions she tastes.

The book reminded me of The Giver, a YA book by Lois Lowry, except that The Giver is a rejection of avoiding the evils of the world in favor of a bland existence. The basic premise of The Giver is that a seemingly utopian civilization has cordoned off all emotion and color from their lives. War and poverty are gone, colors and love too. The result is that the inhabitants are content, but are deprived of the intensity of romance, familial affection, and the like. Jonas is a twelve year-old boy who has been chosen to receive the memories of all the good and bad from “the Giver”. The keeper of the emotions occasionally lies to the populace to shield them from negativity. The big choice Jonas faces is whether to retain the memories of all that is good and bad in the world or to release both the pain and the happiness he now knows exists. The book is a beautifully rendered celebration of truth and the richness of human experience.

The characters in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake shy away from full engagement with the world. There could be a stretch in interpretation regarding the damage secrets and familial unhappiness does to individuals and how the unhappiness can haunt generations. My problem is that I am not sure the book engaged this issue on a deep level. Alternatively, the book was not particularly compelling on an individual level either. Where Lois Lowry manages to convey both the minute and the broader issues with intensity and clarity, Aimee Bender seems too unsure of her characters and the ideas inherent in her setup to achieve a satisfying engagement with either.

There are readers and book clubs who will really enjoy it, will love puzzling out what the magical ability could mean or what having the ability would be like or how beautiful it all is. However, the novel struck no chords of mine. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but it tasted kind of hollow.