The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The story of a young girl who can taste guilt in roast beef and sadness in lemon cake.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake By Aimee Bender Doubleday 292 pp., $25.95

Like many children, Rose Edelstein would rather live on Doritos and Oreos than her mother’s cooking. But the picky eater has a reason for her junk food cravings: She can taste the emotions in food.

“She’s like a magic food psychic,” her brother’s best friend diagnoses in Aimee Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, after an experiment at a bakery where Rose can identify which baker hates his job (chocolate chip) and which one was running late that day (oatmeal raisin).

Her empathic taste buds erupted right before her ninth birthday, when she bit into a piece of her birthday cake. In addition to lemon cake and chocolate frosting, “all sunshine and cocoa,” “it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother...”

Horrified at both the knowledge that her impulsive, good-with-her-hands mother is miserable and at having the knowledge forced on her in such a personal, inescapable way, Rose learns to loathe mealtimes. “The whole thing was like reading her diary against my will,” she recalls years later.

Even her sack lunches become emotional land mines. Rose “spent lunchtime at the porcelain base of the drinking fountain, which was half stopped up with pink gum, taking sip after sip of the warm metallic water that pushed through old pipes from plumbing built in the twenties, pouring rust and fluoride into my mouth, trying to erase my peanut-butter sandwich.”

Magic realism is kind of like cilantro; plenty of people love the Latin flavor. But for some, even a hint of it is like eating soap. My mom, for instance, picked up “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” – and put it right back down.

But for those willing to experiment a little, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” doesn’t tread even remotely on the same emotional territory as “Like Water For Chocolate” (another book that combined food, magic, and a really unhappy cook).

Bender doesn’t go in for florid flourishes or passionate writing; her territory is the unspoken unhappiness of a 20th-century, middle-class family.

Her 1980s California world is a very recognizable one of suburbs, buses, and overworked school nurses. If anything, Bender does less with food than one would expect of a novel whose main character’s emotional world is bound up in the sense of taste.

Despite a love affair with vending machine food that was never touched by human hands, Rose is actually the most socially well-adjusted Edelstein child. It becomes increasingly apparent, as Rose conducts her years-long search for the bland, that something is seriously wrong with her brilliant older brother Joseph, who takes his need to be alone to desperate measures.

“I loved my brother, but relying on him was like closing a hand around air,” Rose says. At breakfast, she has to push cereal boxes in front of his face, so that he can avoid making eye contact.

Meanwhile, her mother pays her children to spend time together (she calls it babysitting, although Joseph has this tendency to disappear) while she concentrates on woodworking and an affair. Their scrupulously mild-mannered dad, who can’t set foot in a hospital, watches medical dramas every night and pretends that nothing is wrong at home. Grandma sends bizarre care packages from Washington, full of laminated shopping lists, faded tea towels, and metal folding chairs.

While the ending may strike some as Kafkaesque, there’s an evocative power in Bender’s work that lingers with a reader. “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” is fully grounded in the lives of overly perceptive children, whose emotional antennae pick up way more at a family dinner than the correct way to hold a knife and fork.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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