Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakePublisher/Year: Doubleday, 2010

There are those books that stay with you throughout the years. Then there are those books that dissipate away as soon as the back cover is closed. For me, An Invisible Sign of My Own falls into the former category; it is a book that will not go away. It is seared into my brain with such force and prominence that I sometimes wonder that if I start talking about it, I may just start spilling forth its prose in fandom exaltations. A situation, no doubt, that would be fraught with embarrassment for all parties involved.

Such adoration of this novel is one reason why I can only recall a single instance where I verbally recommended it. Sure, I wrote a review of the book and published it in a couple places but that is more of an impersonal method of pushing forward a recommendation. To pass along an adored book to others so that they may too praise its awesomeness 'in person' gives the sharing experience an additional sheen of camaraderie and tangibility. The truth is though…I want to keep Aimee Bender all to myself. I want to be like a two-year yelling “mine” whenever they point at or pick up something - “Oh, Aimee Bender? Mine!” The luscious weirdness, the ruthless artistry, I want it all just for me.

This greediness came to the fore again with the recent absorption of Bender’s latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I say absorption rather then reading because I don’t believe one ‘reads’ magical realism. The verb is too passive, too sulky to be associated with the emotional mash-ups that occur within such writing. Not that this novel is just magic realism; I should be clear about this. It is rather a mixture of magic realism, surrealism, and realism. There’s a whole lot of “real” going on that needs to be attended to here. You need to read a bit, take a pause, and then read a little more; let your psyche absorb what it is consuming.

The narrative belongs to 8-year old Rose Edelstein, who encounters the lemon cake referenced in the title the day before her birthday. When she arrives home from school her mother suggests that they have a practice run for the next day, and the two set about a comforting routine to make the aforementioned lemon cake. Upon the first bite of her practice birthday cake however, Rose discovers a peculiarity to the cake; she tastes something beyond the known ingredients. She tastes loneliness and sadness, her mother’s “absence, hunger, spiraling, hollow.” It all comes as a surprise and creates a traumatic experience through which Rose must fashion a unique culinary life.

"I knew if I ate anything of hers again, it would likely tell me the same message: help me, I am not happy, help me -- like a message in a bottle sent in each meal to the eater, and I got it. I got the message."

Every bite of food from this point on infuses Rose with the feelings of those who produced the food. She becomes so attuned to the feelings that soon she can identify where a product is made, how a piece of fruit is picked, if a cook is angry or happy or sad. The wealth of emotion she receives through food forces her to subsist largely on vending machine treats, much preferring their dulled feelings to the possible hysteria lurking in freshly prepared dishes.

As with most families, Rose keeps her unique talent hidden. The complexities of Rose’s relationships with food serve to provide insights into the workings of her family—her adulterous mother, her disengaged father, her oddball grandmother, her disappearing (literally) brother. She indulges early on in trying to articulate her dilemma to her brother Joseph, whose genius is not his only talent she comes to discover. It is Joseph’s friend George though who, although skeptical, becomes her ally (and first love) following a fateful trip to a local bakery. He even proclaims her a “magic food psychic.”

You may, as I did, associate this book in passing to Laura Esquivel’s brilliant Like Water for Chocolate. Both are about the magic realism lingering within the dynamics of human emotion and the items we consume. However, the significant difference between the novels is the narrative construction. Tita pours her emotions in her cooking, emotions that actively overtake all who smell and eat it. Conversely, Rose is the passive recipient of the emotions here; the tasting of food and identifying the accompanying emotions becomes something of a game to her.

Through this culinary game, Rose struggles with finding her place on either side of the blessing or curse divide and the reader struggles right alongside her. Her talent isolates her, as the emotions encountered through food are at times unbearable. She retreats into the world of processed food, an action that mimics her social and familial withdrawal as well. The solace provided from this withdrawal helps her handle other people’s emotions but at the same time triggers an inability to properly deal with her own.

Rose’s withdrawal is paralleled by that of her brother Joseph, who spends most of his time in his room alone. He has one friend George, who fulfills some of the brotherly duties that Joseph eschews. Joseph’s behavior is odd, which their mother attributes this to him being a genius rather than suffering from something much deeper. Both Rose and Joseph are alone by choice, but only Rose acknowledges in small ways that she is also lonely. It is this acknowledgement that serves to highlight the intensity of human disengagement that exists within her family.

It would not be wrong to casually refer to Rose’s journey as a coming-of-age tale. We do follow Rose from age 9 to 22 throughout the story. But the story fits somewhat uncomfortably under that literary umbrella. The story feels more like a quest, albeit one without a clear goal. Rose learns to manage her psychic ability well enough early on and chooses to embrace the limitations rather than its possibilities. It is only near the end of the novel that she starts to turn 45 degrees in the other direction and slightly fracture the loneliness and sadness that engulfed her for so long.

There is no clear and happy ending to Rose’s story; it just continues on. This partly because of the lack of sentimentality within Bender’s writing. And this is a good thing, as this lack allows the story to build angst and anxiety within the words. Bender articulates Rose’s complexity masterfully, knowing when to take a light-hearted turn and knowing when to let the darkness seep in to colour the experience. She is, as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language.”

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is, ultimately, about a family traumatized by its own familial confines. Bender skillfully harnesses these traumas into characters that outlast and outgrow the pages of the novel. I can only hope that there is another novel on the horizon that will tell Joseph’s quest too. The glimpses into his world left me craving more.

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