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TBTS Reviews: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

August 11, 2010

Dysfunctional families are nothing new to fiction.  We have seen so many in books and on screen that it’s hard to keep track of them.  Every other writer seems to have emerged from one, and almost none of them can wait to tell the tale.  We have family tragedies and family romances and family comedies black and white and many, many shades of gray.  Tolstoy may have said that every happy family is alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but had he foreseen the American determination a century later to explore each and every one of those ways, he might have thought twice about it.  It ought to be something special, then, if someone can present a family drowning in itself in a new way.  It is my pleasure to say that Aimee Bender might well have done it.

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the narrator, nine-year-old Rose, discovers she can suddenly taste in food the emotions of its maker.  In so doing, she discovers her mother’s despair, and who blankly denies it when Rose confronts her about it.  Her father, dutiful, loving, yet strange and mechanical, will not enter a hospital out of some unspecified fear, not even when his children were born.  Her brilliant older brother Joseph, meanwhile, begins his own slow descent into a social withdrawal so complete and crippling it threatens to take him, quite literally, out of the world.  Only George, Joseph’s only friend, really believes Rose, and she turns to him to keep herself from cracking under the weight of her family’s secrets.

Depression, infidelity, schizophrenia, loss of innocence – all these are familiar enough that yet another book about them in their undisguised forms might as well be tossed directly onto the remainder pile.  But Bender loves to employ surreal elements in the service of a realistic story, and in so doing, turns those commonplace themes into the stuff of wonder.  Through Rose’s gift, she has captured a child’s discovery that her parents are flawed beings who will do anything to hide the full extent of those flaws from their children.  Joseph’s unexplained disappearances hint at profound mental illness, but the secret behind them, when Bender finally reveals it, is so strange and creepy that you’ll return to that scene just to feel its chill again.  And Bender’s prose, spare but packed with exactly the right details, is the perfect instrument to deliver a story like this:

My birthday cake was her latest project because it was not from a mix but instead built from scratch – the flour, the baking soda, lemon-flavored because at eight that had been my request; I had developed a strong love for sour.  We’d looked through several cookbooks to find just the right one, and the smell in the kitchen was overpoweringly pleasant.  To be clear: the bite I ate was delicious.  Warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar.

But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction.  As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new.  Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite.  I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down….

No, it is not your average dysfunctional family story, not by a long stretch.  As Rose grows up, facing the difficulty of knowing too much about the people she loves, we see a wiser woman emerge from the girl.  It is not, of course, a pleasant journey, but neither is it an exhibition of horrors.  Bender does not set out to shock the reader, to demonstrate for you just how much one poor girl can carry.  She has a much lighter and more precise touch than that.  It is the kind of book that comes packaged with the words you might expect, words like heartbreaking. Look past that, I urge you, and let this book’s quiet kind of magic work.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Doubleday, hardcover, $25.95.

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