The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset….there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness.
From the moment I read the inside flap of this book’s dust jacket, I was enthralled. The idea that food could reveal people’s feelings is absolutely fascinating to someone who has spent a good deal of time and effort studying how books reveal our attitudes toward food and society. Now, instead of just imbuing food with social and emotional meaning, an author was finally allowing one of her characters to understand that meaning. Amazing!
So. Here’s the story: Rose discovers she can taste people’s feelings through the foods they make. The first thing she tastes is her mother’s lack of fulfillment in the titular cake (with chocolate frosting), but she later tastes the rushed cookies from a bakery down the street and the machines that produced her Oreos. Eventually, she even tastes something she can’t understand from a slice of toast her brother had made.
For me, it wasn’t that Rose tasted too much — it was that she tasted too little. I wanted her to eat everything off of everyone’s plate. Why didn’t she sneak a bite of her Dad’s mashed potatoes? Why didn’t she ask her childhood crush to make her a sandwich?
The answer, I suppose, is that Aimee Bender wanted to preserve a little bit of mystery. And while the novel is interesting because Bender holds back, much like a magician never revealing his tricks, I found myself frustrated and distracted.
The novel is moving and beautifully written, but magical realism like Bender’s is a genre I’ve never quite understood. The main theme of the novel seems to be empathy, and Bender explores how a deeper understanding of those people we love most can be a gift as well as a burden. Rose’s brother suffers as a result of his strange affinity with his world, and Rose’s father is afraid of what his type of empathy might mean. Bender uses magical realism to focus the novel on the meaning, rather than the nature, of her characters’ common affliction.
Maybe I have been reading fantasy and science fiction too long, or maybe it’s just my left brain taking over, but I found myself more interested in the nature than the meaning. How did this young girl come to taste people’s feelings? Why her? Is it genetic, as several of Bender’s characters seem to suggest? If so, why does it manifest differently in each family member? My inner sci-fi fan, so used to universes defined by explicit sets of consistent rules, demanded an explanation.
Don’t get me wrong, Aimee Bender doesn’t owe her readers anything — far from it, and I feel as though that’s part of the reason she chose magical realism. She doesn’t have to get bogged down with a blow-by-blow description of what this young girl has and why it works the way it does. Still, though Bender doesn’t owe me an explanation, I wish she would have provided me with one.
What are your feelings on magical realism? And I know I read about this novel on someone else’s book blog — was it you? If so, what did you think?