Posts Tagged ‘Aimee Bender’

I spent a couple hours yesterday trying to find a Steven Millhauser short story I read years ago. Of course, I couldn’t remember the name of it, although I was pretty sure I had the anthology where I first read it. Something about libraries. But what was the name? Many internet searches later, I had the name of the book, Reading Rooms. But I still couldn’t find it on my many double-stacked shelves. So then I found the next best thing — my original Orlando Sentinel review from April 14, 1991: “You can actually taste the books in Steven Millhauser’s fantastic fantasy ‘The Library of Morpheus.’ The narrator reports that a volume of Dickens tastes like ‘roast lamb, peas, and mashed potatoes with gravy,’ while Kafka is ‘like pure cold-burning water.’ ” Mmm. Love the idea that books have distinct tastes and real flavors.

With that in mind, I expected Aimee Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, to taste like its title and the cake on its cover — lovely lemon layer cake with gooey chocolate frosting. It would be light, spongy, sweet with just a hint of tang. No, not really. It’s quite tart. Either there’s not enough sugar mixed with the cocoa, or the zest in the cake includes some pith. Bittersweet. Still good, though.

To nine-year-old Rose Edelstein, her birthday cake tastes so strange and sad. Then she realizes that she is tasting the inner emotions of the person who made it — her outwardly cheerful mother. The next day she can’t swallow her homemade PBJ sandwich. Too much despair. And then there’s her older brother Joseph’s crunchy toast — awful, horrible, lonely. “I’m ok,” he protests. “I’m fine.” But she knows he’s not. And neither is her distracted father, who is so phobic about hospitals he stands on the street and waves to a window  when his children are born.

Rose’s sense of taste becomes so acute that she only eats cafeteria food made by one lunch lady. She knows by an egg’s taste what farm it came from and if the hen was happy. She can distinguish a Florida orange  from one from California. One batch of bakery cookies are full of anger. Some made by another baker are rushed and worried. To protect herself from things she’d rather not know, Rose  subsists mostly on tasteless processed fare from vending machines.

As Rose grows up, her peculiar gift/curse provides a detailed portait of her way-dysfunctional family. She’s actually delighted when her mom’s roast beef tastes good, even though it means she’s having an affair. But Joseph is the most disturbed, and disturbing, family member. He appears to have some form of autism, sharing his genius with math and physics with one brilliant friend.  Still, his grades aren’t good enough to get him into Cal Tech, or anywhere else but a community college. He moves into his own apartment. And then he disappears. Maybe.

Bender’s deft touch nicely blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, even though hers is a melancholy magic, seasoned with empathy and loneliness. Her sentences are often quite lovely; scenes have a quiet gravity; the ending promises new hope for Rose. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake may sound odd, but try it. You may be surprised how much you like its particular taste.

Open Book: I bought Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday) and gave it to a friend who makes the most magical pies.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: