Sweet (and Sour, and Emotional) Old World
Ordinary people can see the evidence of others’ emotions, hear them, read about them, maybe even touch them. Rose Edelstein, the central character in Aimee Bender’s wonderfully named second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, $25.95), can taste them. Nine-year-old Rose, sneaking a piece of her mother’s fresh lemon cake, ruins her dinner — and entirely changes her relationship to food, her family, the world.
Like a TV writer cutting from a suspenseful opening to the opening credits, Bender veers away from Rose just as she pops that first unexpectedly flavored bite in her mouth. In a few pages, she sketches the relationships in the Edelstein family: Rose’s unfulfilled, searching mother, who stays up and sleeps in; her strange, smart, distant older brother, Joseph; her efficient, practical father. Rose can barely explain what she’s experiencing — the cake brings “the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, of tasting a distance” — and none of her family members are primed to listen.
Lemon Cake skips through the years as Rose, wary and observant, grows into her early 20s. She tests her abilities with Joseph’s sympathetic friend George, tasting the hurry in a baker’s cookie and the surliness in a chef’s minestrone. The tang of emptiness in her mother’s lemon cake, a “puffy salty collapsing death” in her brother’s popcorn — these things drive Rose to live on processed food. “A Dorito,” she says in a middle school report, “asks nothing of you, which is its great gift.”
Bender, whose last book was the short story collection Willful Creatures, is a literary cousin to Kelly Link; both write about the oddest of things in the clearest of tones, transforming strange happenings into gorgeous considerations of the way people live in their world — the big world we all share, and the secret internal world of the mind. Rose’s gift — or ailment — in Lemon Cake is an impossible sensitivity, a forced understanding that, contradictorily, isolates her. As she grows, and begins to suspect she isn’t the only member of her family hiding an odd skill, she also begins to see a way to live with, not around, her talent. It’s a familiar theme for a coming-of-age story, finding who you are and what your talents make possible (and difficult) for you, but Bender’s unusual metaphor and her clear-eyed, almost solemn narrator make Lemon Cake the sort of story that seeps into dreams and changes the rhythm of waking thoughts. Bender reads from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake at 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 7, at Powell’s in Portland. — Molly Templeton