The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
01 December 2010
From the Oracles, to Jean Grey, to Mel Gibson (who, if you'll remember, once accidentally electrocuted himself with a hair dryer and thus gained the ability to know what women want) there is a long tradition of stories concerning those people blessed, in the French sense of having to suffer, with the power to read minds. In the majority of these stories the arc eventually turns to despair, as those unfortunately empowered souls often find themselves—either due to fear at the extent of their power or the overwhelming pain and confusion of human existence—drifting further and further away from civilization. The oracles ensconced themselves on mountaintops, Jean Grey flew into a distant sun, and Mel Gibson, of course, went crazy.
In Aimee Bender's second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, she presents us with a girl who possesses a power not exactly unlike that of reading people's minds. The girl's name is Rosie. She lives in a suburb near Hollywood, in a house full of strange people who happen to share her blood. Her older brother, Joseph, is silent and gray-eyed and sometimes disappears—possibly into thin air—and then returns looking very tired. Her mother has recently quit her job and begun to take up, and subsequently drop, a series of tasks such as stitching dollies, coaxing strawberry plants into vines, and baking cakes. Rosie's father doesn't have anything really special to note about him except that he refuses to go into hospitals. On the days his children were born, he "waited outside on the sidewalk, sitting on a crate, half reading a detective story" (p. 24). He mentions to Rosie, at a moment she needs a bit of cheering, that on the day she was born he brought binoculars.
What Rosie can do that makes her special is taste people's emotions in their food. A baker's anger and haste in their brittle oatmeal cookies, for example, or a cafeteria lady's real and true sadness in her doughy pizza. Rosie discovers this power during the week of her ninth birthday, when her recently unemployed mother decides to bake—in a gesture of how very much she loves her daughter—a chocolate-covered lemon cake. At first, what Rosie tastes is what you might hope for in a lemon cake, a "warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar." But then, there is something else. Rosie tastes underneath the chocolate and lemon and butter, a "sensation of shrinking" and "distance" somehow connected, Rosie knows, to her mother. "A lack of wholeness" she ultimately decides, is what it is (p. 14). At dinner that night, with her brother and father and mother sitting around her, Rosie eats a second piece for dessert. She wipes away tears with a napkin. "Maybe I'm sick?" she says (p. 18).
At nine years old, Rosie is young enough to be curiously forthcoming about her oddness to certain people (the school nurse and her brother's friend), but old enough to know that being different is hard and not something one discusses with your parents. There's a sense that Rosie, left to her own devices, might eschew experimenting with her power in favor of ignoring it as much as possible so as to remain normal. As it happens, though, her brother's best and only friend, George Malcolm—a boy of mixed heritage, galactic hair, and a natural aptitude for physics—decides to focus his scientific curiosity on Rosie. Together they raid Rosie's fridge and discover the distracted zigginess of her father's butterscotch pudding and the acidic resentment contained in a can of grape jelly. George's buttered toast tastes wonderful due to his concentration and gentle focus. The toast prepared by Rosie's brother, on the other hand, is blank and grainy and folding in on itself. The feelings overwhelm Rosie. To get the taste out of her mouth, she eats a prepackaged sugar cookie which tastes only of the "distant regulated hum of flour and butter and chocolate and factories" (p. 35). She eats five more with something like gleeful relief. She has tasted her mountaintop, her distant sun. Food made by no one is easy to eat.
Bender has previously published two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), as well as one novel, An Invisible Sign of Her Own (2001), and a novella, The Third Elevator (2009). Her style tends towards something literary, sensual, and askew. Her narratives, for the most part, tend towards something not so much magically realistic as realistically realistic in which something insistently weird is happening. In one, a boy has keys for fingers; in another, a girl's father wakes up with a hole in his stomach. In 2005, Bender was nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. award for "Dearth," a short story concerning a woman who gives birth to potatoes. Sometimes, Bender's narratives tread close to obvious metaphor—as, perhaps, in the story of the father with a hole. At their best, though, her stories venture to lands inexplicable and sad, as in one tale in which a woman watches her lover devolve into a gorilla, a turtle, and then a salamander, before finally setting him free in the ocean.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, for much of its narrative, lacks that kind of beautiful and surreal horror. Rosie's food tasting is not something like an old man with wings or devolving lover. It's something more subtle. Something so subtle, in fact, so close to the way many of us taste food (the comforting warmth of cinnamon or the cheerful acidity of lemon), that the power of cognitive estrangement inherent in the best weird tales is perhaps missing. But that's not to say there isn't any power here.
As Rosie's story unfolds, as she grows up and falls in quiet love with George, as she discovers her mother's affair in a dish of roast beef and potatoes and learns some hint of why her father refuses to enter hospitals, Rosie begins to understand not only her family and her place in it, but also something of the inherent and inexplicable sickness of belonging to that race of animals prone to being overwhelmed by their own capacity for feeling. For some, this capacity sends them to mountains or locked rooms. For some, it leads to affairs or viewing their newborn daughter through a pair of binoculars. Some, like Rosie's brother, go so far and so simply as to will themselves to disappear. Late in the book, Rosie witnesses her brother do something involving a chair which is strange and sad and beautiful. Here the story finds something like an old man with wings.
One of Bender's older short stories, "Loser," came to my mind as I finished this book. It is a tale, much like this one, in which a child has an exaggerated version of a power that most of us, to some extent, already possess. In Rosie's case, she tastes people's emotions in their food. In "Loser," a boy is exceedingly good at finding lost things.
This is how Bender begins that story.
"Once there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things. Both his parents had been killed when he was eight years old—they were swimming in the ocean when it turned wild with waves, and each had tried to save the other from drowning. The boy woke up from a nap, on the sand, alone" (The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, p. 135).
There are several wonderful moments scattered throughout The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Along with Joseph and the chair, there's a bit with the planet Jupiter, as well as one quiet living room scene of lovely and despairing scope, in which a discussion between Rosie and her father reveals a family history of secret and burdensome power. It's also nice to see how Bender twists the standard mind-reading narrative. By the end of the story, Rosie, unlike most of her storied forebears, does not retreat to insanity or distant suns. She does not continue to kneel in thanks to vending machines and packages of Oreo cookies. Instead, she lives among people, finding work at a restaurant, helping them pick ingredients and learning, in the process, what it is it to be Rosie, a human girl possessed with the burdensome power of feeling.
Still, I wished at times that this story had found a way to be as concise as "Loser," compressing as it does, in lines like those above, a character and his power and his sadness into a tightly wrapped package of violence and wonder. What Bender conveys in those few lines above, she unveils over chapters in this novel. For some, such a leisurely pace may be enjoyable. It is one of the pleasures of long-form reading, to be sure. For me, though, as enjoyable as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake can be, it had me, at times, looking forward to what Bender will accomplish in a novel of wider scope and denser narrative. Something more like a rich, dark, and nutty coffee-cake—possessed of the mystery and melancholy present in Bender's best short stories—and less like the citrusy and distant, though well-made, concoctions of Rosie's mother. But that is, of course, just a matter of taste.