June 2010

Sam White


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

In college I did a close reading of Aimee Bender's short story "End of the Line." A man goes to the pet store and buys an Indian-in-the-cupboard-sized man in a suit, takes him home in a cage, and after a few weeks of sadistic acts and conversations about the tiny man's idyllic homeland, he realizes how simple moments of grace elude his lonely life. I admired her dark humor and spare prose, with the whimsy and fantasy of Grace Paley and Kelly Link. She's written two collections of stories, Willful Creatures and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and a novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own.

Her second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, covers the Bender bases: a typical American household, an element of fantasy, and intimacy retardation. The conceit: Rose Edelstein realizes at age 9 that as she eats, information about the food arises, which includes the emotions of the grower, picker, baker, and vendor. "I could sometimes trace eggs to the county."

This skill grants her access to the mental landscapes of family and friends (she can tell when her mother feels lonely, then suddenly joyous), but it also alienates her from enjoying an average meal. She eats "a negligible hamburger by a pothead who wanted to be famous." By the end, it becomes a point of family bonding and source of identity.

But what does the skill represent and how can a reader relate? Tasting a particular sadness in lemon cake on a suburban afternoon is an exaggerated symptom of empathy and deep observation. Rose intuits moods indirectly; no communication required. She is exceedingly forgiving because she knows that even immoral actions like adultery come out of a desire to be loved. Thus goes the need for conflict. She bears the burden of empathy alone, but it rarely leads her to decisive action. A mix of fantastical elements and adolescent milestones mark time till the story's end

Evocative details vibrate with meaning, or try to, conjuring a lonely girlhood in Southern California in which dull objects seem heavy with nostalgia under the sun. Lists of objects create mood but lack urgency. "The streets were quiet as I strolled. Fewer cars on the road in the middle of the day. A man with a leaf blower steered clumps of grass into the gutter." Bender expects her phrases to pull more emotional weight than they do, perhaps because our narrator, Rose, is beset by low expectations and passivity. Gathering information from the details of the world of objects ("egg brown mug") somewhat mysteriously paves the road to self-discovery, overcoming fear and resignation.

Like her mother, Rose looks for signs in objects, scanning life for omens. She makes decisions inch by inch, and the routines in life bear the mark of one's subconscious, a secret jumble of fears wearing away on the opportunities in life like water on wood.

Though often droll, the narrator's gaze can be ineffectively childlike and innocent. Here, Rose praises a chef: "I could go on and on. I don't know how to say it right." While bonding with her brother in a quiet moment, she notes: "The words lived lower. Below words." At crucial moments, I felt abandoned by Rose even though I understand it's not her fault. It's her confrontation-averse parents who run away from their problems. Her father's stilted conversation sounds to her (and the reader) to be from "page forty-three in the manual: father has heart-to-heart with his daughter."

The primary issue for the novel might be genre. Bender's strength lies in the epigrammatic short story. For sure, Rose would be an Elite yelp reviewer: "An Ethiopian place... made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn't even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay." But, contrary to expectations, the novel outlasted its charm.

Another way to approach the foodie premise of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is as a timely statement on the Yelp-happy, Alice Waters-worshiping, pork-is-deliciously-evil zeitgeist. In this way, we are all Rose, with every bite of food surrounded, not by tradition and folklore, but bad news. Her aversion to her power parallels many people's reluctance to forsake meat and dairy. However, her discoveries do not extend beyond the Edelstein circle, and what she discovers about human nature is not very affecting. Rose's magical taste buds stand for the power within us that we suppress, which is an important, beneficial lesson, but incorporating the food element highlights Rose's seclusion from the outside world and the agricultural industrial complex, which Rose notices but ignores. Bender approaches the rich premise with wistful humor but I glimpsed unharvested opportunities for satire and depth.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
ISBN: 0385501129
304 Pages