The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

June 15, 2010 at 12:10 am 4 comments

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?

— KT

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shannon  |  June 16, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    This one is now number two on my list following last week’s recommendation of Major Pettigrew — this one was recommended in the Oprah magazine’s Summer Reading Guide. Hopefully I will get to it this week and then I can let you know my thoughts.

    I’m a huge fan of magical realism. I don’t need those same kinds of answers — it works better for me not to know where someone’s magic comes from. It’s why LOST worked for me on almost every level and why I wasn’t disappointed in the series finale; I’m sure it’s why the Harry Potter books are my favorites. And it’s why a lot of other fantasy books don’t work for me — too much explanation of why this character can do this and why that character can do that. I don’t need to know the hard facts.

    Reply
    • 2. KT  |  June 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      I love Harry Potter! That series has a great balance between the more mechanical aspects of magic (wand swishing, spells) and the mystery behind it (why DIDN’T Voldemort kill Harry? I know this is explained later, but not for much of the series — and where is the magic itself coming from?). That kind of mystery is okay by me…but my left brain demands at least a partial explanation of some part of the magical goings-on!

      That said, if you love magic realism, you’ll love this novel :D

      Reply
  • 3. Iris  |  June 18, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I’ve wanted to read this book for a while now. The title is simply lovely. I’m sorry to hear it was a bit disappointing for you though. I hope that if I read it, I won’t be frustrated about the same things. I do think you have a point though, I recently read a book in which I really would’ve liked some answers.

    Reply
    • 4. KT  |  June 20, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      I’d say the first half or two-thirds of the book were lovely, but by the end, I was so frustrated by lack of answers that I didn’t care what Aimee Bender had to say!

      As I’ve said, though, it’s probably just me. Give it a try! At the very least, it will give you a new appreciation for lemon cake :D

      Reply

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