I’ve known of Aimee Bender’s name for a while, but couldn’t have told you where I first heard it, or anything much about her writing. However, I’m always interested in books where the fantastic intrudes on the everyday, and how could I not want to read a novel with such a brilliant title as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? So I read it and, happily, was not disappointed.
Rose Edelstein is just about to turn nine years old when she tries a piece of the birthday cake her mother has made and discovers that, underneath the flavours of lemon and chocolate, it tastes hollow: ‘My mother’s able hands had made the cake…but she was not there, in it.’ This is Rose’s first experience of her talent: when she eats something, she can detect the feelings of the person who made it; which is how she knows that her mother is troubled, and how, years later, she can tell that her mother is having an affair.
There are tensions within Rose’s family – her mother and father are not in love as they were; her brother Joseph absorbs himself in school and college work, thereby distancing himself from the others – and the girl’s new ability lays the roots of some of those tensions bare for her. This leads to Rose’s having a troubled relationship with food – at one point, she even wishes that she could have her mouth removed, and takes refuge in factory-made foods, which don’t taste so personal – and this is what makes Bender’s novel so elegant: that its fantastic elements work both literally and metaphorically at the same time.
For example, interpret Rose’s talent literally, and she doesn’t want to eat her mother’s cooking because she can’t bear to taste the sadness with which it was made – and the rest of her eating habits are similarly shaped by this magical ability. But another way of looking at Rose’s situation is to say that she has an eating disorder, and that her attitude to food is how she responds to the tensions at home – the effects on Rose’s relationships with other people are much the same either way. Similarly, Joseph gains the ability to vanish and reappear at will; and this can also be taken at face value, or read as a boy withdrawing into his own little world as a coping mechanism.
This theme of abilities and actions having both literal and representational roles extends beyond the supernatural into the more mundane aspects of Bender’s narrative. Rose’s grandmother is a distant figure whose relationship to her family is represented in the novel by the parcels she sends to Rose’s household, which are less gifts than cast-offs (‘mailing her life away’, as Rose puts it). Another example is the hobby of carpentry that Rose’s mother takes up: she meets Larry, the man with whom she has an affair, at her carpentry group; and so the hobby becomes both a constant in her life and a symbol of the Edelstein family’s problems. This, perhaps, is why Rose is so keen to hang on to the tatty old footstool that brought her parents together, because to accept a new one made by her mother would be tantamount to approving the affair.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a carefully detailed and nuanced portrait of a family in crisis and a girl trying to come to terms with her situation. It uses fantasy to wonderful effect, making it both tangential and central at the same time. Magical stuff, in more ways than one.