Aimee Bender's second novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake starts off with an unusual premise. Nine year old Rose Edelstein eats her mother's homemade lemon cake, a birthday treat, and learns she has the gift of tasting her mother's emotions in her food. What might seem like a gift is in fact a curse since her mother suffers from the usual suburban ennui. The result for Rose is that eating turns to torture as she processes emotions she is far too young to fully comprehend. Unfortunately for the novel, what could have been an interesting premise only delves into the usual literary staples of how miserable it is to be middle class.
There is a lot to like about Bender's novel. Her narrator is engaging and mature (she ages from nine to her early twenties through the course of the novel), and is able to discern the complexity of human emotions and behavior through the food she eats. Her reactions to the food her mother prepares are unpleasant to downright violent, and yet we are able to see her mother's life only through Rose's reactions to the food. Rose is certainly aware of the complexities of her parents' marriage, her father's unwillingness to engage with his family, or how her mother favors older brother Joseph. When her mother begins an affair, Rose welcomes the reprieve since the food she now prepares is filled with more pleasant emotions. Rose responds to this outcome with levelheaded maturity, more relieved that her mother is at least feeling loved. However one would think that Rose, in experiencing what her mother feels, might question why she or her father were not enough to make her mother happy. Nor does Rose feel any jealousy regarding her mother's favoritism toward Joseph. These are interesting dilemmas that the Bender never addresses and, aside from the novel's engaging style, leaves it feeling rather hollow.
The novel's premise also doesn't allow for Rose to act decisively independent of what any person would normally do. Her coping mechanism is to eat a lot of processed foods since they are devoid of any human and emotional interaction, an interesting idea that could have used further exploration. Otherwise Rose's role is to react to the world around her. This becomes all the more so when, by the middle of the novel, Bender abandons Rose's predicament in favor of the far more intriguing story about Joseph. Misunderstood and unappreciated (aside from his mother), Joseph is a young scientific genius who prefers to be left alone rather than interact with other people. As Rose soon learns, he likewise has an unusual talent. This talent, along with Rose's, seems to run in the family, as we later learn about their father. Rose reacts primarily to her brother's troubles, is to first to notice his talent, and yet all she can do is react. Joseph's skill acts as a metaphor of sorts for his inability to cope and survive in the real world, much the way a drug addict would, and his family's reaction to his slow disintegration is generally with the same level of confusion and helplessness. Joseph's story is the most suspenseful and it gives The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake an intriguing pulse in a way that Rose's dilemma simply does not.
The novel is slender and Bender's style is both spare and observant. And the fabulist world that she creates within the realistic settings of Los Angeles is intriguing enough to be a page turner (I finished the book in two days). Yet she creates so many threads within the story (Rose, Joseph, her mother's infidelity, her father's lack of intimacy) that they rarely connect in any meaningful way. In the end I was left wondering what was the whole point. Despite its fabulist trappings, the novel treads territory that is already too familiar in most literary fiction; unfortunately too familiar to yield any new truths (to be honest, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate uses magic realism and the culinary arts to deliver a tale that is far more passionate and larger-than-life). I did enjoy reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but I wished Aimee Bender could have pushed the envelope and explored more dangerous territory.