Review by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
I’ve always liked my fairytales sad. Happily-ever-afters are great for children, but as I got older I started to need stories with a little more bite to them. I want a princess that can’t be saved, lovers that come thisclose to happiness before it’s taken away, a tragedy that can’t be undone with a wish. I want my fairytales to break my heart.
Amiee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has no true love’s kiss, fairy godmother, or broken curse. Instead, it begins with a little girl who can one day magically taste her mother’s desperation in a piece of cake. This is the beginning of a culinary nightmare for our protagonist Rose, who must now ingest the emotions of the cook with every bite. She spends her years finding solace in pre-packaged snacks and TV dinners, terrified of tasting her parents’ collapsing marriage or, worse, her own internal struggles in every dinner. Add this to a crumbling home life and the realization that her brother has his own magical secret, and it’s no wonder that Rose is incapable of finding love with her would-be Prince Charming, George.
Bender creates a modern fairytale that delivers everything I could possibly want. Lemon Cake is simple, charming, and so wonderfully, achingly sad. There is no quest that Rose can go on to find a cure for her power; she accepts it the best that she can, and must learn to deal with its consequences. This is not the tale, however, of a quiet martyr. Bender spares neither readers nor Rose the pain of her “gift.” Rose must taste her mother’s affair and a friend’s depression, before confronting the awful mix of rage, hope, and nostalgia (“like rotting flowers”) that is hidden in her own cooking. Look what happens when we can’t run from our emotions and problems, Bender seems to be saying. We choke on them. And Rose does choke, for years and years, incapable of even moving away from home in fear of what the college cafeteria could hold for her. For Rose, this bizarre “eating disorder” dictates every move she makes. Bender is a master at honing in on what we consider normal and inconsequential (a sandwich, a bowl of spaghetti) and turning it into a catalyst for an existential crisis.
I found myself as equally drawn to Rose’s father and brother, Joseph, as I was to Rose. Both have inherited their own magical power, yet neither seems to have the strength that Rose has in living with this secret. Her father avoids hospitals because, he confesses, he has the uncanny sense that, if he ever entered one, he would be able to do some sort of extraordinary deed. This idea frightens him so much that he is incapable of setting foot inside of one, and awaits the birth of his children from underneath a hospital room window. We must either hate or pity him for his cowardliness, for his ability to avoid the responsibility of power in a way that Rose cannot. It is Joseph, though, poor, brilliant Joseph who cannot handle the world that truly tugged at my heartstrings. For years Rose watches her brother struggle to interact with the world around him, smothered by their mother’s obsessive love and every so often escaping by disappearing into thin air. Joseph, apparently, can become furniture; he assumes the identity of the pieces in his room and is able to sink into blissful nothingness. Rose’s father can avoid his power and Rose bears hers, but it is Joseph who is finally overwhelmed by his curse. Or is it a blessing? For a young man who cannot find peace in the world, Bender delicately suggests that this non-life might be what is right for Joseph. There is no judgment, no indicator that Bender believes that either Rose, her father, or Joseph is the one to properly handle their power and their life. Instead, she merely presents the options and allows readers to ponder which approach they would take.
In the end, Rose does not get love, a cure, or any definite happily-ever-after. Bender does not promise that things will get better for her, but she does give us hope that one day, maybe, Rose will be ok. And that was enough for me.
Aimee Bender is the author of five 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, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake(2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, released this last August, a NY Times Notable book for 2013.