Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

I love Aimee Bender. I've read all three of her short story collections, which I think are just about the bee's knees. She writes the most lovely magical realism, fabulistic, speculative gems, wonderful writing I could spend the rest of my life reading. It's probably what I would choose if I could only read one thing ever again. Am I totally crazy for Aimee Bender or what!?

Anyway, her second full novel (and the first that I've read), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake came out a few years ago and I remember seeing it then. The possibilities of what the novel might be really intrigued me--Rose discovers that she can taste feelings in her food, the emotions of whomever prepared the meal. She is terrified: she can taste every ounce of complexity in her mother's internal emotions, can sense her loneliness and dissatisfaction and the affair she is driven to.

It is a frightening situation, to be shouldered with the responsibility of knowing the deepest feelings harbored by anyone who has touched the food you're consuming, and Rose acquires the ability at a young age; she has to spend the rest of her life trying to adjust and close herself off from the secret inside feelings of people around her. It's a story of her growing up with this curse, and it's sad. She turns to processed food, food created mostly by machines--they are empty of feelings, and she can actually think about the tastes instead of the emotions.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a thinking book, and it really wants us to think about our own feelings. Where do we hide them? Who can read them? How much should we share? It's not the sort of book that wants to give us easy answers, or the kind where the characters think about everything and explain it at the end in a chapter or three of really boring conversations/monologues. It's not a novel that wants to do those things, and I didn't want it to do those things, either.

For example, I sense internet frustration that the book doesn't explain why Rose has her talent. For me, at least, that doesn't matter. The basic plot of this story could have gone in a lot of different directions--Rose could have spent a whole book trying to figure out if a fairy cursed her or if she got exposed to radiation in the womb, or she could have used her talent to save the day and stop people from killing themselves or something.

But what does Rose do instead? She tries to kick up a fuss, realizes it will only make her look crazy, and tries to live with it. Like a normal human being. She isn't a superhero, nor a plucky teen heroine stopping the evil alien lord from ending the world. She's a real person. That's one of my favorite things about Aimee Bender's writing: she will invent situations not possible in our real world, but the characters in these microcosms behave as realistically as you or me.

If you are looking for a plot-driven narrative, stay home. This is 100% character-based, and it's strange and it's weird and it's wonderful. Try out a Bender short story first (go for "Ironhead" or "Americca" for a first taste), and if you like it, hey! Congrats. You've just given yourself the gift of a full-length novel that will delight and astonish you in all the ways her shorter works have.

My rating: 5/5
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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