The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

By Aimee Bender

June 2010, Hardcover
304 pages

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Reviewed by Anne Valente


When authors publish both short story collections and novels, readers inevitably compare their efforts in an either-or dichotomy: are they better novelists, or better short story writers?  Luckily for Aimee Bender, no such dichotomy exists. Rather than comparing her talents in each form, it is perhaps more instructive to view them as inevitable extensions of one another. In Bender’s short fiction, she often creates worlds both fantastic and familiar, populated by characters with unique talents or hidden qualities that set them apart, often in loneliness. Such worlds never question their own logic and are offered to us in lucid precision, a clarity that raises each story to three chiseled dimensions, ones we can taste, see, touch. If Bender’s short fiction demonstrates her exactitude and her great skill in rendering surreal worlds that make us stand in awe at their splendor, then her novels allow us to move past admiration to prolonged interaction. We move further into the world at hand. We play. We recognize characters with a history, with a past beyond central concept, and what’s more, we learn about their emotional core, what makes their hearts beat. We move into the messiness of what life can be beyond the space of short fiction, and in Rose Edelstein’s case, how chaotic adolescence becomes when emotions are baked into every food we consume.

In Bender's new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, we meet Rose on the eve of her ninth birthday, when she bites into the cake her mother made for her and discovers not the fluffy sweetness she expected, but an empty, cavernous sadness. Rose knows immediately that the taste is linked to her mother: "My mother’s able hands made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it…with each bite, I thought – mmm, so good, the best ever, yum – but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." Lemon birthday cake sets off Rose’s discovery of a gift she struggles to disavow, for the ways it distances her from others in knowing their most private, concealed sentiments. We follow Rose through adolescence to adulthood as she detects the anger in bakery-bought cookies, the blankness in toast her brother has prepared, and even which distributors and farms certain creams and breads have come from, whether oranges and pears were picked hastily or with love.

Rose conceals her gift from the judging eyes of her friends and family members, but the novel becomes more than a simple journey of self-revelation. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake spans a decade of family history, covering the years it takes for Rose to both know her family and not know them, and the ways parents and siblings can love each other across rifts, wavering toward empathy from their own separate spheres. Rose seeks the cause of similar secrets her brother keeps when he locks himself in his room and disappears. She navigates the awkward movements of interactions with her father, wondering why he never sets foot in hospitals. She steers her way between wanting and not wanting to know the source of her mother’s sadness, the impulse for ignorance driving her to eat only food from factories and vending machines, all emotion leaked from mass production.

The content of the narrative is both rich and satisfying, buoyed on the fresh, fastidious language that makes Bender’s work so rewarding to read. Bender’s prose anchors itself upon attention to inventive, original images that precisely illustrate the image or action described. Rose feels "the crumbled paper that had taken the place of [her] lungs expand as if released from a fist" just as she notices, while looking through photo albums with her father, how "the moon slipped down into the frame of the window and reached an arm of pure light through the glass." Bender's story glides upon strings of words that could have only been written by her, each containing the gift of making readers pause to catch their breath after it’s been suspended and stolen.

It seems easy to guess that this aspect of Bender’s writing is the intellectualized part, the craft element that is honed so meticulously in her short fiction and shines through readily in her novels. Yet there is such joy in her prose, such confidence in images so deeply embedded in the world of the story, that perhaps the precision comes not from overthinking, but from the simple meditation of writing with conviction. Bender believes in her worlds, a narrative faith that comes across not only in careful language, but in the heart and empathy she brings to her characters, in the ways that Rose and her family let us in. Bender loves her characters as much as they love each other. We see this again and again in moments like one where Rose looks at old photos with her father, observing him as an adolescent, her "Tiny Dad, wearing that little polka-dotted bow tie, his hands spread out to the sky." Or when Rose’s mother admits how unknowable her own children are, and Rose thinks how "she had birthed us alone, diapered and fed us, helped us with our homework, kissed and hugged us, poured her love into us…That she might not actually know us seemed the humblest thing a mother could admit." At the heart of Lemon Cake lies not simply an anomaly, the special gift of tasting emotions through food, but the unfathomable mystery of human connection—how, even from our separate spaces, from our own secrets and borders and walls and shields, we stretch out from ourselves to love each other anyway, as much as Bender herself loves the characters and worlds she reveals to us.