The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
Reviewed by Steve Yarbrough
Flannery O'Connor was famously supposed to have remarked that anyone who made it through childhood should have enough material to write about forever. Yet the list of contemporary American novelists who have written persuasively about children is, to my mind, surprisingly short. Alice Hoffman belongs on it and so do Alice McDermott, Joyce Carol Oates and the unfortunately overlooked Lewis Nordan. If we go back a bit, so does William Maxwell. After reading Aimee Bender's new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I would nominate her for inclusion on the list as well.
When the novel begins, Rose Edelstein is about to turn 9. Her mother decides to bake her a lemon-chocolate cake. When Rose bites into it, she discovers the most peculiar thing: She can taste the emotions of her mother, and while the cake itself is wonderful, her mother's emotions are anything but. The "gift" quickly becomes a burden or -- here, for once, I would not quibble with a publisher's jacket copy -- "a curse." Rose begins to learn things about her mother, her father and her brother that most of us are blissfully unaware of. The novel, which covers a number of years, is a chronicle of her attempts to come to terms with what she knows.
While Bender delivers plenty of plot surprises, as well as numerous insights into character, my chief pleasure in reading the book was the beauty of the author's prose, which is both straightforward and unusually sensuous. "The room filled with the smell of warming butter," she writes, "and sugar and lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulled out the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet. The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go, and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I really couldn't possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan, to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongy chunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped the whole thing into my mouth." Bender has enough confidence in the story she's telling, and the character at the center of it, to relay what happened and let us, the readers, render judgment. Her dialogue is equally unadorned, and her characters sound as real as Raymond Carver's -- which is to say they remind one of the people next door.
My guess is that this novel will be one of the year's highlights. Intense and compelling, it explores familial love in an unusually idiosyncratic but nonetheless convincing manner, and I find that I'm still thinking about Rose days after finishing the book.