As gifted a short story writer as Aimee Bender is, the long form is not her strong suit. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is ploddingly, draggingly, achingly slow–especially considering that the events of the story are actually pretty fantastical.
The narrator, Rose Edelstein, is the eager younger sibling in an ordinary middle class family of four living in Los Angeles–reserved lawyer father, crafty hippie mother, still searching for her place in life, brilliant older brother, cut off from his high school peers and, increasingly, from the world at large. But at the age of nine, Rose begins to experience a strange new phenomenon: when she eats, she can taste the emotions and often even discern the secrets of the person who prepared it. Alienated by her ability, Rose grows up avoiding decisions, depth, relationships. Her brother Joseph, meanwhile, becomes increasingly antisocial, until finally he simply disappears, a development that leaves the family bereft. Rose cannot bring herself to follow a traditional path–leaving home, attending college–but in time she finds some solace in cooking her own food and working in a restaurant and discovers the secret behind her strange ability and her brother’s disappearance.
I see The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as an inverted Like Water for Chocolate set in a Southern California suburban wasteland, minus all the drama and most of the sex (wasn’t there also a Sarah Michelle Geller movie with this exact same premise?). I don’t want to imply that this book wasn’t good–it was well written, intelligently crafted–but also extremely slow. The plot is so simple in its essentials that it cannot sustain a whole novel. As a short story, it would have been brilliant. As it is, it comes up lacking.
This is exacerbated by a certainly flatness about the main character and narrator, Rose. In the early chapters, nine-year-old Rose is effectively and endearingly animated by childish confidences and concerns, but as she matures the burden of her gift seems to take over her whole personality. Her character is stripped away, leaving a passive observer of a first person narrator, inert and ill-defined. This is a deliberate choice on Bender’s part, and a truth Rose herself discovers when sampling her own food, “I was left with two particularly disturbing first impressions. One was the sickly-sweet nostalgia, in the taste of a tantrum, the longing for an earlier, sweeter time with an aftertaste like cancer-casing sugar substitution. And the second was that factory.” (241) Later, when the taste of the factory continues to show up in her cooking, she concludes, “it must’ve come from the cook.” (242) She has been so dominated by her ability that her emotions have become mechanical, her internal life repressed out of a desire for self-preservation. This is a sensible choice for the character, but a 300 page novel in which we know as much about the main character at the end as at the beginning doesn’t exactly make for a page turner.
The other characters are almost equally elusive. Kind, vague father, smart and efficient, and yet haunted in someway; mother, lost in her own life, waiting for signs and portents, missing her lost son; and George, her brother’s charming best friend and her own lifelong crush, perpetually cheerful, insightful, good, but always receding–college, grad school, married, gone. It’s a story of profound and unavoidable loss–of innocence, of loved ones, of human connection, of hopes for the future. As the title promised, a truly depressing novel.