Friday, May 6, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

On the way to work this morning, I heard Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How it Feels" on the radio. Not a great song, and probably more about pot-smoking than philosophizing, but the chorus struck a chord with a feeling I was left with after finishing a book earlier in the day.

My dear sister, who mails me good books to read, recently sent "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, 2010, hardcover: $25.95, 292 pp.). Like most good books, it was provocative. This is a book that makes you think; the kind of book that makes you want to go out and find everything else the author has written and devour it.

Devour is what I did with "Lemon Cake," a charming and peculiar book that has less to do with food, and more to do with complicated feelings and self-discovery.

Rose Edelstein discovers, on the eve of her ninth birthday, a gift of sorts that set her apart. She sneaks a bite of the lemon cake with chocolate frosting her mother has made for the occasion. And in that morsel, she tastes great sadness - her outwardly cheery and ever-busy mother's sadness. At first it is sweet and delicious, as she expected, but then she detects a powerfully strong undercurrent that overwhelms her.

"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, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral ..." wrote Bender, who is pictured at left.

Rose hopes this new ability will go away. She tries to tell her mother about it and, when that fails, she tries to root out the cause of her mother's sadness by asking her about it.

Maybe it's magical realism, this book about a power that Rose possesses, but it's not the same supernatural magic you would find in an Alice Hoffman novel, let's say.

The next day the same thing happens with the sandwich Rose's mother packs for her lunch. She spends most of her lunchtime at the water fountain "trying to erase my peanut-butter sandwich." She's sent to the school nurse, who decides it's some kind of eating disorder - that Rose is trying to lose weight. The well-meaning nurse prescribes time ... and later ice cream when Rose starts to (understandably) lose weight.

Rose's ability is not limited to her mother's cooking. Her brother's friend George, who has an interest in science, takes her on a field trip of sorts to a nearby baker. In her chocolate chip cookie, Rose tastes rage. In an oatmeal cookie, she tastes hurriedness. George asks to meet the baker of the chocolate chip cookie, and out comes a surly dissatisfied kid, who fesses up that he hates making the cookies. The woman who made the oatmeal cookie is always in a rush, it seems.

Rose seems unsurprised to find her gift validated.

In time she can divine exactly which factory in which state produced the cookie or whatever it is that she's eating. She ultimately seeks out processed food that comes from factories where it's least touched by human hands - that way she can't taste the emotion of the maker.

Rose finds the sandwiches her best friend shares wither her are the best, as they are made in a happy home. She can taste the love and contentedness in them.

One of my own mother's favorite sayings is "food is love." I haven't been able to effectively replicate that love that is evident in my mother's lasagna, lobster salad, Quahogs, Portuguese soup, pretty much everything she makes. And let me just say, that as an adult emotional eater, thinking food is love is not all that healthy for your waistline or your psyche ... but I digress.

In this novel I could feel Rose's sadness, her separateness, the weight of her giant secret, her lack of a true confidante. And while the story did take kind of an unexpected but not entirely surprising sci-fi-ish turn about 2/3 of the way through, it resonated with me.

There's a popular saying of Plato's I like, it's approximately: "Be kind, for everyone around you is fighting a hard battle." And I think Bender, while fleshing out something a bit magical in this tale, was putting out into the world a version of that sentiment.

Rose could taste what people were feeling, and it turned out that what people were feeling was not usually how they seemed.

"You don't know how it feels ... to be me."

No one in her life really "got" Rose throughout the book. So she was left, at age 22 where the book ends, to figure things out for herself.

It's a book that will have you thinking things like "If my feelings were transferred into this omelette I'm making for breakfast, what would the person I serve it to find?"

It's a good read, full of longing, wonder, sadness, wisdom, and ripe, juicy words.

I agree with this synopsis from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. It is heartbreaking and funny, wise and sad, and confirms Aimee Bender's place as "a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language."

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