Book Quote:

“I had been friendly when I was eight; by twelve, fidgety and preoccupied. I kept up my schoolwork and threw a ball when I could. My mouth—always so active, alert—could now generally identify forty of fifty states in the produce or meat I hate. I had taken to tracking those more distant elements on my plate, and each night, at dinner, a U.S. map would float up in my mind as I chewed and I’d use it to follow the nuances in the parsley sprig, the orange wedge, and the baked potato to Florida, California, and Kansas, respectively.

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (JUN 2, 2010)

Ever since the publication of her story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender has established herself as a writer of minimalist magic realism, a description that seems contradictory given the lush prose of the founding father of magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the emotional adjective-laden writing of popular American author Alice Hoffman. But Aimee Bender has claimed her niche as a writer who tells stories the way we pass on fairy tales to our children: spare plots that contain wondrous images and, ultimately, wisdom. Her plots center on one or two magic elements in an otherwise ordinary world. In her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender focuses on narrator Rose, a girl who learns, to her horror, that she can taste the emotions of those who cooked or grew her food, whether that person is her desperate mother or the farmer who grew the organic lettuce in her salad. As Rose matures along with her “gift,” she learns about the peculiar history of her family and gains insight into her odd brother Joseph, who suffers, too, but in a wholly different manner.

Rose’s family is about as dysfunctional as a functional family can get. Her mother casts off a boring administrative job to follow a series of “hands-on experiments”—baking, growing strawberries, becoming a carpenter—designed to find the happiness she desperately craves, finding it at last in a secret affair that Rose discovers through the taste of dinner. Her father, a lawyer, hates hospitals so much that he refuses to be present at Rose’s and Joseph’s births or at any other family emergency that requires one. Joseph is the family’s reclusive genius and favorite child until it becomes apparent that his intelligence isn’t honed enough to escape from the oppression of the family; instead, he finds another way, with his own gift, an avenue that only Rose and his friend George can understand. Rose’s grandmother won’t visit them (and they don’t visit her), so she sends boxes of cast-off belongings that, on the surface, are junk, but which serve as a connection to her grandchildren. At the center of all this, Rose lives in quiet, underappreciated and largely unseen, a position which both hurts her and allows her to mature as Joseph cannot. What is most amazing is that Rose is able to detect emotions in a family that purports to have none.

The strength of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is not in its unusual premise or even its dissection of a crumbling family but rather in the way Rose’s emotions and insight build within the magic to illuminate the casual way we go about our lives without realizing how we might impact others. When Rose freaks out after tasting the unbearable sadness in her mother’s pie, her mother rushes Rose to the hospital instead of addressing and admitting the real problem: how her emotions are being passed on to her children. It’s no accident that the only characters who believe in Rose’s talents are well-adjusted individuals who want to be better at what they do.

Bender’s prose verges on the lyrical at times, with images that resonate without being flowery, but, for the most part, she writes in a straightforward manner, with a narrative voice that suggests a simplicity of purpose when the underlying currents are anything but. Rose is both storyteller and participant, and her voice reflects this dual role. While such a technique doesn’t create the intimacy expected of most first-person narratives, it does allow the extraordinary to fit into a more mundane reality. Rose is trustworthy, honest in her appraisals, the only one who could successfully guide the reader through the stages of her survival and the love she maintains, despite all, for her family.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 396 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Aimee Bender
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


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June 2, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Family Matters, Reading Guide

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