Saturday, October 15

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

In the week of her ninth birthday Rose Edlestein’s restive, restless mother bakes a cake. She’s made them before, and the ingredients are the same, but the usually distinctive flavours of chocolate and lemon are drowned out by absence, hunger, emptiness.
It’s not just her mother’s food – Rose can now taste the emotions of everyone who cooks her food or contributes to the ingredients – the nastiness of the farmer who grew that parsley, the cows whose milk is in this cheddar, the wholly factory-processed chocolate chips. In a world where despair, sadness, anger and desperation are rife, it is the latter that literally saves Rose’s life in adolescence, when the comforting nothingness of foods untouched by human hand offer her the only respite from an onslaught of gustatory emotion. And in the process Rose becomes familiar with the unique qualities of every large scale farm and processing plant in the US, as well as many around the world.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a unique novel that looks like another story of family dysfunction - loving but distant father, needy and unchallenged mother, brilliant but strange and removed older brother, introspective and responsible narrator. The theme of children compromising themselves for their parents is not new, but it is very well handled here, and the first person voice neatly walks the line between girl and retrospective woman. The familial functional dysfunction aspect is well done, and the use of tasting emotion through food is really interesting route, that not only allows Rose to discover and describe the emotions of those around her but also explore the nature of isolation.
I was for some reason strongly reminded of the very different Perfume, which I was sure I reviewed but can't find anywhere. I'm not sure why the evocation was so strong - perhaps because of the detailed and nuanced descriptions illuminating aspects of a sense to which most of us are comparatively oblivious.
What is very different about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, though, is the surprising SF element that appears midway through an otherwise more literary narrative. Always somewhat different, Joe seems to vanish without notice – at first for short periods and then for progressively longer periods of time, never talking about what he did or where he went, and looking less well on each return. At first this seems like relatively unremarkable adolescent behaviour, but quite late in the book we discover a clearly paranormal occurrence (not at all in the sense of magic or vampires-and-werewolves, more like Gould’s Jumper). The concept is woven into elements already present in the text, particularly right near the end, but I didn’t find this added illumination so much as surprise, for up until that point I’d thought I was reading something at the more literary end of book group fodder. Rose’s ability is certainly fantastical, but did not break my willing suspension of disbelief. This talent (or, possibly, propensity) of Joe’s. However, is most definitely fantasy/science fiction territory, and I’m not sure the genre mix is entirely comfortable.
This is not in any way to suggest that SF is inherently unliterary, nor that I’m opposed to crossing genres. Some of the best writing I enjoy falls firmly into the former category (this includes the redoubtable Sawyer and the magnificent Bujold among others), and some lauded literary writers have created what are unquestionably works of FSF (from Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to 1984, Brave New World and Farenheit 451). While I can think of none off the top of my head, I know I’ve enjoyed unusual genre combinations in the past. I’ve given this no little thought and am quite frustrated that I can't think of any, so suggestions are expressly invited!
I did get a strong Book Group feel from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; I was not wholly involved with it but curious to see how it (and Rose) would unfold. I’m not sorry I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I picked up as a 3-for-2 offer recently, but had no strong desire to read more of Bender’s work. Writing this review, though, has unexpectedly piqued my curiosity though, so watch this space. – Alex

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