The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender


Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-50112-5.
Reviewed by Barbara L. Heller
Posted on 08/03/2010

Fiction: Mainstream

The style of Aimee Bender's new book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has been described as magical realism. It is that and quirky, ambiguous, and entertaining as well. Here thoughts run together into dialogue without quotations, descriptions are often sparse and pointed (e.g. "...their smiles sewn up with an edge of fishing line."), and the characters rich. Rose's father won't go into hospitals, her aging grandmother sends Rose's mother packages of chairs and stale crackers, her brother's only friend pays more attention to her than her science-obsessed brother does, her mother finds new fulfillment in woodworking. But our primary focus is Rose, who is on the cusp of nine years old and for the first time tastes people's feelings—feelings that they are not necessarily aware of themselves—in the food that they cook. This is an ability that understandably makes certain things inedible and Rose's life complicated. Secrets and the unspoken are often mingled with the other ingredients. As Rose ages, she develops an understanding of how this sensitivity sets her apart from others and she struggles to accept and ultimately find some pleasure in this unusual talent.

Bender's book is more than the story of the connections and distances in what we therapists call "family dysfunction." It is full of quixotic metaphors. In an online interview, author Bender stated that she wasn't interested in diagnosing her characters, only in describing them. But for this reader, the relationship between sister Rose and brother Joseph, especially in a series of confusing interactions, illuminated the thin line that sometimes exists between sane survival and mental illness. An underlying theme is that the quirky skills and perspectives that individuals in a family possess can either help them understand and navigate their world or can cause them to be overwhelmed by it.

As soon as I finished reading this book, I ordered copies of Aimee Bender's other publications (a novel and a book of short stories). I hope that they are as tasty as I found The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.


Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998), which was a NY Times Notable Book; An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000), which was an L.A. Times pick of the year; Willful Creatures (2005), which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year; and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010). Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper's, Tin House, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, and many more places, as well as heard on PRI's "This American Life" and "Selected Shorts." Bender has received two Pushcart prizes and her fiction has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC. Visit her colorfully-illustrated website.

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