Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aimee Bender writes a touching portrait of a family in pain.

I heard this book reviewed on KCRW, and I was immediately taken with its tender evocation of the pain even a loving family can provoke. This novel is poetically written and deeply melancholy. I recommend it for readers who can take that sort of thing.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (292 pages, Doubleday, $25.95)is a remarkable novel. Rose Edelstein is the central character. Her parents are loving, if distracted, and Rose feels sure that they love her older brother Joseph more than they love her. Her sense of alienation, at home, at school, and even with her friends is palpable, and she spends her time trying to get closer to her mother, who is always a little off-hand with her, or with her brother, who has very little time for her, or her father, who buries himself in work.

For her ninth birthday, her mother prepares her what is thought to be her favorite cake, a chocolate lemon cake. She knows that her mother is going out of her way to make this cake for her, and she is prepared to enjoy it if only because of the occasion, but then she fully expects to like it too. Imagine her surprise and discomfort, then, when she bites into and tastes, without knowing why, her mother’s desperation and frustration.

From that moment, she finds that she cannot eat anything without tasting such uncomfortable facts about how it was made. Every supper at her home is a kind of torture, because she feels as if she is seeing into her mother’s soul. At school it is even worse, for she tastes the bitterness of the kitchen workers and the horrors of life in the school cafeteria.

To protect herself she eats packaged junk food as often as she can. That has a rather tasteless, factory flavor, which, although not pleasant, is at least not painful in the way all the other food in her life seems to be.

She copes rather well for someone with such a severe disability. When she talks about it, she is treated like a freak, so she more or less keeps it to herself. There is one exception to this rule. Her egghead brother’s best friend, George, who is also an egghead, is kind enough to her that she talks about her problem. He becomes fascinated and even tries to help.

As she struggles with her own special capacity, she reports about what is going on in her family, as any teenager with special powers might. She watches as her brother self-destructs by first screwing up his college applications and then seeming to fall off the face of the earth. She feels his pain deeply and tries to help him cope with the stresses of his life. She also tries to help her mother, whose extramarital affair she tastes in a supper her mother prepares for her when Rose is about twelve years old. She doesn’t let her mother know what she knows until she is over twenty.

Her father is a mystery to her, but when, after Joseph’s disappearance, she and he start to grow closer, she begins to realize that he may hold the key to all their odd behavior.

As it happens, Rose ends up in a restaurant, where her food abilities serve her well. She finds people who appreciate what she can taste in food, like where it is from or whether or not it is organic. Rose ends up functioning in a society she has more or less created for herself.

This is a very touching novel, as beautifully written as it is melancholy about the state of human relations.

Aimee Bender

Purchase a copy at Vroman's, Powell's, or Amazon.

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