Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

If lemon cake had an emotional content, what do you think it would be? For Rose Edelstein, it is sadness. Lemon cake is the first food that she bit into, at eight years of age, and tasted the emotions of the person who made the cake: her mother, who baked hollowness into the cake. A few years later, a roast beef dinner tells Rose that her mother is having an affair. This special skill makes eating difficult for Rose, who must focus on the more mundane--identifying where the ingredients came from (she can identify eggs down to the county) or the factory in which they were assembled--in order to eat without extreme emotional distress.

But Rose is hardly the only one in her family with a problem. Her father cannot enter hospitals--even when his wife is giving birth or someone he loves is ill. Her grandmother is gradually emptying her house by sending everything to Rose and her family--including broken furniture, half-used packages of food, and other oddities. Rose's mother, as the emptiness and affair mentioned above might suggest, is unhappy and overly focused on Rose's brother Joseph. And Joseph--well, in order not to reveal what would best come as a surprise, let's just say Joseph has serious issues and only one friend. That friend, George, shows Rose kindness and acceptance not available from her family; as a result, she adores him.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is definitely odd--as a reader who struggles with "magical realism," I never know quite what to make of the kinds of things that happen in this book. Yet it held my interest, even at it's strangest moments.

Favorite passage:

My soup arrived. Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaked bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking. I sank into it.

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