Book review: ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

A Novel

Aimee Bender

Doubleday: 292 pp., $25.95

It makes sense: Everything is made up of many things: Cells, fibers, chemicals and also the thoughts and feelings of the people who make the things. Food, which is so alive, entering and reentering the carbon cycle, fairly hums with clues to its origins. The ability to taste the ingredients in food and wine is a kind of acute, honed consciousness. Sometimes the people who are acutely conscious of feelings and ingredients would rather not have this skill, this consciousness. It’s just too hard to walk down the street, to live in a world full of joy, yes, but also terrible, terrible pain.

Rose is just a little girl when Aimee Bender’s novel opens. Her mother makes her a lemon cake with chocolate frosting, a practice run for her birthday cake, and Rose tastes something beyond the basic ingredients. She tastes a hollowness, her mother’s empty loneliness. From this point on, every bite of food is burdened with the feelings of the person, people (even whole factories) who made the food. Rose can identify where the food was made, how the animals were treated, how the vegetables were picked (rudely, with kindness), whether the cook was angry or rushed or desperately in love.

Combine this ability with a parent’s kind, sometimes misguided efforts to shield children from pain, their own and even their ancestors. Remember the myriad times when you were a child and you knew so well that the words coming from your mother’s or your father’s mouth did not match the feelings you knew they were having. So confusing!

For Rose it is unbearable. She lives in one of those families; mother, father, older brother (middle class, though it hardly matters) in which everything is always fine fine fine. Nobody talks about anything. No one acknowledges pain. If they did, the entire edifice might crumble. Everyone is kind, there is not a lot of yelling or drama. In fact, there is a terrifying lack of drama.

Something is wrong with Rose’s older brother, Joseph, but Rose seems to be the only one who sees it. He spends all his time alone in his room. He has only one friend, George. He is so terribly alone. He’s a genius, which is what his mother, the queen of denial, says. He’s deep, he just needs his space — and then he doesn’t get into any colleges. His life quietly spirals into the aloneness from which there can be no return.

Bender is the master of quiet hysteria. At times, it seems almost cruel, like she uses her talent to create anxiety willfully. She builds pressure sentence by sentence. When Rose is 12, for instance, her mother makes her another cake and Rose goes into violent convulsions. I can’t take your loneliness, she tells her mother, who brings her to the emergency room. The doctors find nothing. A little hiss of steam comes off the novel.

Then Rose tastes a wild, illicit love in her mother’s roast beef. An affair. Her father can’t taste it. He lives in a “Don Quixote”-like haze and is unable to see the holes in his family. “The world had matched what he’d dreamed up,” Rose explains, “and he settled himself inside what they’d made.”

Bender has inherited at least three profound strains, three genetic codes or lines of inquiry from her forebears in American literature. There’s the Faulknerian loneliness, the isolation that comes from our utter inability, as human beings, to truly communicate with each other; the crippling power of empathy (how to move forward when everyone around you is in pain) that is so common in our literature it’s hard to attach a name to it, and the distance created by humor, a willfully devil-may-care attitude that allowed, for example, Mark Twain to skip with seeming abandon around serious issues like racism and poverty.

A real anxiety arises when these three strands wind through one novel. “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” features a family in which three people are seriously depressed and one is traumatized by their depression. And yet there’s an almost trendy tone, a lightness of being, a blinding glare. It is, for this reader, a quality I associate with novels set in Southern California. It’s this century’s version of noir, or maybe it’s the opposite of noir. Void of sentiment and high drama, bleached clean of mystery and even metaphor, it’s about daily life that is increasingly impossible to navigate yet moving always forward.

Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.