Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake"

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, Doubleday, 2010

I had a couple of sick days last week, not to mention it being winter and stay-in-the-house time. So I had a chance to read Aimee Bender's latest novel. The author teaches at my alma mater, USC, and I saw a release about the book in an alumni magazine.

The story is about a girl who, at an early age, discovers that she feels others' hidden emotions when she eats the food they prepare.

In terms of this main character, Rose, Bender avoids formula. The strange gift is in some ways a curse, exposing the child to things for which she's not ready and which force painful shifts in her world. Although it opens some later opportunities, the gift seldom helps her. It is a novelty at best, a wound that refuses to heal much of the time. Only in adulthood does Rose begin to find constructive uses, but they are tentative beginnings rather than an ending to her story.

That being said, Bender neutralizes this central dilemma in the book's long middle passage. Rose simply learns to eat factory processed foods, which only impart factoids about locations and ingredients while sparing her any emotional ingestion. This created a distraction that almost had me set the book aside. The sections of the story where the food/emotion connection is on hold contain some moving material, but it is like a story within a story and I found myself constantly wondering if each scene was setting up the return of Rose's conflict with food.

Also distracting was Bender's decision to omit quotation marks. I think she was trying to suggest the messy spillover of thoughts, actions and emotions - but I'm not sure. I know it slowed me down as I sometimes had to think through and reread conversations that should have carried the story on their own flow.

Don't get me wrong, I was impressed with Bender's writing. Take this scene, in which she draws us into the emotions afflicting Rose's parents, without naming the emotions themselves,

I laughed. Mom laughed. She did not put an arm around him. The calm look I'd seen in her just minutes earlier had stiffened, her eye hollows deepening. Neither of them seemed to understand how things had gotten so strained - at the start of their courtship, Dad had thought Mom's lostness was a sign of her spontaneity and he let her lead the way on weekends, taking the BART around and getting off at unexpected places to buy discarded records at street fairs. Mom had thought Dad's steadiness meant he could handle and help anything, and she loved to watch him mailing his bills, studying, making his lists. All of which he still did.

At my door, my father kept his arm tight around her, but he suddenly seemed stuck there, like a person who stumbles in public and apologizes to the air..

You take good care of that, he told me, sternly, pointing at the stool.

Somebody has to, I said.

For a second, his shoulders tensed, in his blue blazer. I waved goodbye, to get them out of my room. Go to your party, I said. Have fun.

Mom fled first, in a circle of purple. Bye! she called, to Joseph's room. Out we go! said Dad, too loud, as they passed, sparklingly, through the front door.

Of course no writer can avoid formula, so Bender sets the unhappy housewife in an affair, that staple of male porn and female - well - I think it's a kind of chick porn. Not so much about the physicality, but about the endless arranging of thoughts and feelings. Either way, there's one person involved in self-something and the rest of the characters are furniture.

That also happens in this scene, in which Rose and a boy she craves share a first kiss:

The surge built and lifted, and I moved into him closer and he pressed into me, and it was turning a corner, heading down new and urgent byways, driving, gravity pulling us lower, but then both of us began to stop it, slowed everything down. Moved our faces apart. Kissing slowly, slower. Pauses. Embellishments. Punctuation.
See what I mean? Give that scene to a guy, and he shoves in a camera and starts panting. Give it to a girl, and she sits in a corner with a wine cooler and a Thesaurus. Voyeurism either way. There's really only one person involved.

Did I mention that this book with a central dilemma built around food ends with a reflection on... trees???

Despite these various distractions, which certainly reduced my enjoyment of the book, I found parts emotionally powerful and arresting. Likewise, Bender's refusal to make Rose's strange skill a source of disaster on the one hand or salvation on the other deserves applause - that temptation would have to intrude on any writer.

As a Christian, I found some good questions generated by the book. Do I run from any purpose or gift because I associate it with life's painful or unresolved passages? Are there some wonderful realities which, revealed to an ill-equipped child, are overwhelming and burdensome?

On a personal level, my heart was taken with the impact of Joseph, Rose's brother, on the entire family. I won't give any spoilers here. But as the parent of an autistic son (Joseph is not autistic, but he's decidedly "different"), I experienced a ton of moving truth in Bender's portrayal of the family. Which, by the way, is mainly that "middle passage" I mentioned earlier - it could be a stand-alone story since Rose's strange power is irrelevant for most of it.

"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" has some great passages, but as a whole seems like a couple of good story ideas that did not blend into one.

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