A boy with keys for fingers. A woman who gives birth to her own mother. Imps and mermaids falling in love. If all of this sounds too strange—even for fiction—then you’ve obviously never read anything by Aimee Bender.
But now, with the publication of her second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, it’s clearly time that you should.
In her latest literary confection, Bender introduces readers to perhaps her most dazzling creation to date: a girl named Rose who can taste the deepest feelings of others, just by taking a single bite of the food they prepare. As the flavors of the food flow over her tongue, Rose is inundated with the underlying emotions of the person who cooked the meal, even if it’s something as simple as a peanut butter sandwich. All of a sudden, Rose is privy to an onslaught of sensations that aren’t her own, and she realizes that nothing will ever be truly simple again.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake focuses on Rose’s formative years, from the age of nine through her early 20s, as she struggles to form meaningful connections with her family and her peers. Intimidated by her austere and deeply intellectual brother, Joseph, Rose tries to understand what makes him tick. It is only with George, Joseph’s best friend, that Rose feels she can truly express herself without fear of misunderstanding or judgment: the two share great tenderness, their relationship tinged with the poignant melancholy that pervades most of the novel.
Unable to stop the feelings that stem from the food she eats, it is up to Rose to discover a means of coping with her unwanted ability. Through much trial and error, Rose discovers there are alternatives to simply cutting herself off from others. With time she comes to see that her “curse” might actually have the potential to set her free, but first she must make peace with herself.
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Bender recalls where the ingenious idea for the story originated. “I think I was primarily interested in the food at first,” she says. “I kept going back to the idea of ‘what if food was carrying more than just food?’ [So] the idea was sort of floating in my mind for years, and then when I hit on that character [Rose] it was all about developing her.”
Although Rose’s story plays center stage, if readers dig deeper, they will see that her brother Joseph’s extreme reclusiveness, her father’s intense aversion to hospitals and her mother’s newfound obsession with carpentry all tell their own stories, each filled with pain and longing. The family is like a concert of tops, spinning together, but each ultimately orbiting its own axis. And yet, Bender balks at the idea that she has depicted a dysfunctional family. “I can see how some would think about this as a dysfunctional family,” she allows, “but it’s not a term I would pick because it can be a kind of catchall. My hope is that the family is experiencing a unique unhappiness.”
When it comes to the author’s own family, however, nary a storm cloud is in sight. Bender credits her mother, a modern dance instructor, as a critical influence on her willingness to defy convention. She recalls, “[My mother] would always take me to these concerts, and modern dance can be so bizarre! She also pointed me toward theater of the absurd writers when I was in junior high and high school; I loved that they were funny and weird and this was literature, and there was some feeling of permission in all of it that felt very good to me.”
Perhaps her mother’s gift of promoting the bizarre is something Bender is passing on to her readers. The wild and fanciful worlds of her imagination have been showcased in two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, and in her acclaimed first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own. Asked about her ability to ground the outlandish in a place that is real, Bender says that writing this way is the only way she knows how. “My impulse is always to take an idea that is a little off-center, which means I can kind of get my hands in it, and then I can use that to climb into the character,” she says.
Although The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is liberally frosted with the foreign and the fantastic, the emotions at its center are undeniably real. Readers who like to give their imaginations a workout are in for a satisfying treat that is both bitter and sweet.