The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
Random House/Anchor (reprint edition)
Paperback: 304 pages, ISBN: 978-0385720960
I love cake. Chocolate cake, vanilla cake, pineapple upside down, and even (read: especially) that cherry chip kind that comes from a box. In my mind, cake is a beautiful thing. People only have cakes on the happiest occasions.
How can cake be sad?!
In her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender finds a way to make cake seem not just sad, but able to communicate a range of emotions which no food, not even a full Vegas buffet, can ordinarily express.
I’ll admit: if there’s going to be a sad cake, lemon makes the most sense. It’s appropriate, then, that Rose Edelstein asks her mother for lemon cake with chocolate icing for her ninth birthday, because, when Rose sneaks a warm piece of cake from the pan and slathers it in rich, drippy chocolate icing, she experiences more than the delectable spongy morsel she anticipates. In addition to tasting the sugar, flour, lemon peel, and eggs that make up the cake, Rose tastes the deep and debilitating loneliness her mother feels but says nothing about.
Rose’s ability to taste emotions is not exclusive to her mother; she can taste the emotions of whomever makes the food she eats. When she bites into a sandwich her brother has made, she is overwhelmed by the way it makes her feel hollow and scared—the reader’s first indicator that Rose isn’t the only one in this cast of characters who is hiding something. Rose is often so devastated by the feelings she tastes that she loses focus on the world around her.
I 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.The beauty of Bender’s storytelling is that somewhere in the midst of this surreal, epicurean coming-of-age story, readers will see themselves—they will understand, in ways both large and small, exactly what Rose is feeling. Bender’s writing is able to convey, in such strange worlds and stunning language, those experiences and emotions that resonate so deeply in everyone: the beautiful agony of first love; the pain that secrets are capable of causing; the moment when devotion and unwavering trust in a parent disintegrates and the world becomes a different, far more scary place; what breathing feels like the moment after you realize your life has just changed forever. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, all of this happens in mysterious ways and under magical circumstances, but we, as readers, are all too aware of the reality lying at the core of this world. A heartbreaking reality that is, ironically, understood so much more absolutely because of its fantastical elements.
“When [mom’s] birthday rolled around, I baked her a coconut cake with cream-cheese frosting, and we sat across from each other at the table with big textured slices. Eight, whispered my cake. You still just want to go back to eight, when you didn’t know much about anything.”August 31, 2011