Seven years since I last read it, I have used all opportunities I have had talking about underrated books to mention The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Random House, Inc. 2010) by Aimee Bender. Recently, at a book club meeting, I remembered the book, driven by romanticism and loyalty towards it, subconsciously deciding to read it again the first chance I get. On my next visit to the library, I borrowed it almost reluctantly, fearing reading it again would change my initial impressions about the book and my memories of it, a cycle of grief that is so desolate and lonely that entering into that vortex requires dedication, perseverance, but most importantly, faith. This time, I read the book, using my lips forming each word in a disciplined whisper, as if reading out to more than one forms of myself. Perhaps it was an attempt to survive any unforeseen departure of the heart or mind, and not remaining lonely, if at all it happens. In the early hours of the morning when I finished reading it, I could breathe again.
Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a treasure trove holding in its pages a phantasmagorical coming together of individuals, landscapes, events, and understandings revealing to its readers a richness that is found in food and in people. It delivers the intricate inner lives of individuals, who immortalized as characters, continue to be in denial, in want, in grief, in sadness, and in need of help. These human-like qualities give the characters in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake certain depth that although for the magical elements in the book, rescues them and presents them as real enough.
Rose Edelstein, the narrator, who takes the readers through her life and the lives of people around her, takes care to remember that her “superpower” allows her an understanding that is deprived to most of us. This compassionate witness, is therefore, capable of understanding (and forgiving) her mother’s sadness (even if she denies it herself) and her extramarital affair, her father’s reserved nature, her brother’s aloofness and eventual disappearance, her childhood love marrying the love of his life, and a grandmother that never shows up in person. Rose’s awakening, through her experience of tasting people’s emotions in their food, however difficult and disturbing, launches her to become accepting of others and be true to her own self. This is Bender’s success in writing The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
Bender’s epigraph, quoting Brillat-Savarin from his book The Physiology of Taste at the beginning of the book, turns the reader to the use of food as an allegory, an element that contains within it complexity and character, and renders it to those who seek. The epigraph reads,
“Food is all those substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses which the human body suffers through the act of living.”
Food then can be of various forms; any form that feeds, that resuscitates a human individual and its body can be and should be seen as “food”. This way of looking at individuals and their choices is enlightening of their struggles, their needs, and their fears. Bender has used this theme throughout her book even as her characters respond to their environments and try to adapt and survive.
Lane Edelstein, Rose’s mother is on a continuing search for her “food”, her precocious mastery of new skills turns her to a recurring moment where she struggles to find what she wants to do. Eventually, her anxiety and unhappiness settle when she enters into a new relationship outside her marriage. Rose’s father Paul Edelstein survives by limiting himself to a routine, performing it with accuracy that helps him remain stable even as complex events around him confuse and complicate his life. Joseph, Rose’s brother, is a surreal character that outdoes other characters by “disappearing” into himself, which even with its magical qualities resembles most of us the most. His “food”, much like those of us who find it difficult to exist in the material dimension, is a tender levitating alternation between two worlds, sometimes at the same time. Including Rose, who “sat down at the table, alone” to do a tasting of food prepared by her own hands, each of Bender’s characters continues to live, even when they find it hard to do so.
In an interview with Liane Hansen at NPR A Book That Brings Sadness to Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender says, “It’s I guess my hope that there’s a survival but with the complexity that it’s something she’s trying to figure out but she’s pointed in a good direction.” In living and in relating to each other, we can become culpable and often judged to the point of dehumanization for the same. One way or the other, we suffer. However, Bender’s Rose seems to shine a new light upon the circumstances of human existence, a fairly repeated yet profound way of understanding that is rooted deep in compassion and personal reflection. She seems to be saying, we are only different to an extent and that that boundary is almost always created, never existing on its own. We can only hope that while we suffer the act of living, we are “pointed in a good direction.”