As it happens, Aimee Bender grounds the quirkiness of that hook in a very plausible reality. Perversely, and despite the strangeness that pervades the novel, there is very little that is not determinedly realistic about Rose’s experience. Her unusual talent is simply a means to an end, which is the excavation of the profound emotional nuances which shape our day-to-day lives.
Whereas most novels tend to concentrate on emotional extremes - and logically so, as these provide dramatic opportunities for writers to exploit - Aimee Bender is more concerned with the minutiae of everyday life, and the gradual accretion of more humdrum emotional responses to the tiny triumphs and failures of our lives. It’s a very effective approach.
The main protagonist and first-person narrator is Rose Edelstein, who is nine years old when the novel opens (later stages of the novel take place when Rose is twelve, and in her early 20s). A very likeable character, she blends an unassuming public persona with a sharp eye for detail in her interior monologues.
Apart from her unique ability to taste emotions, Rose is an unremarkable child who achieves decent grades in school and is not a problem for her parents. The reader may wonder at Rose’s facility for language at a young age, and question the veracity of her insights, given that she is so callow. By the same token, Aimee Bender writes with such panache that it feels begrudging to question Rose’s maturity; Rose is neatly drawn as a child, particularly in terms of her self-questioning as she approaches puberty. It’s also true that the narrative arc of the novel offers, by the finale, a Rose who is in her 20s, so it’s possible to argue that the young Rose, despite the first-person narration and the immediacy of her observations, is actually written by the older Rose.
Rose is one of two siblings, and lives very much in the shade of her brother Joseph, who is the recipient of a very different kind of love from their mother - while their mother loves Rose, she is obsessed with Joseph. This is in part because Joseph was her first-born, but also because Joseph is something of a prodigy, particularly in terms of speculative physics.
Oddly enough, and despite the fact that Joseph is an insular person who makes little effort to connect with the world at large, Bender makes him an utterly compelling character, even before the revelation that Joseph has a talent that is even stranger than Rose’s. As the novel progresses, and Joseph grows even more uncommunicative, he becomes ever more compelling, to the point where his story assumes tragic proportions. Despite the various emotional ups and downs of the Edelstein family, as documented by Rose, Joseph’s is the most heartbreaking.
Rose’s mother is another complex character, and one superbly drawn in all her strengths and failings. Despite the fact that Rose tells us that her mother loves her less than she does her brother, we get no sense that Rose is unloved - indeed, the pair seem to have a strong mother-daughter bond. It’s this very bond, of course, that makes Rose’s discovery of her talent for tasting emotions all the more profound, when she discovers that her mother’s much-loved lemon cake is shot through with frustration, loss and despair.
Later, again through tasting her mother’s food, Rose discovers that her mother is having an affair at work, at the co-operative where she is employed as a wood-worker. The discover impinges very little on the Edelstein household, and not only because Rose keeps the secret to herself; Rose’s mother has always been somewhat distant, not fully cut out for the job of motherhood, in part because her own relationship with Rose’s Grandma has always been a strained and distant one.
Rose’s father and Joseph’s friend George are also prominent characters in the novel. Rose develops a crush on the latter, who is also something of a science prodigy, but both George and her father remain frustratingly out of reach for Rose for most of the story. As with all of Bender’s characters, however, both are plausibly drawn and fully rounded, and play their part in the developing parallel tales of how Rose and Joseph come to terms with their unique talents.
The quality of the writing is exceptional. Bender quickly establishes a style that is light and conversational as Rose narrates the unfolding events, an offbeat and deadpan tone that always contains the potential to divert into more poetic digressions and keen observations on the human condition:
“I could feel the tears beginning to collect in my throat again, but I pushed them apart, away from each other. Tears are only a threat in groups.” (pg 29)And again:
“I felt such a clash inside, even then, when she praised Joseph. Jealous, that he got to be a geode - a geode! - but also relieved, that he soaked up most of her super-attention, which on occasion made me feel like I was drowning in light. The same light he took and folded into rock walls to hide in the bevelled sharp edges of topaz crystal and schorl.” (pg 57)Bender’s parallel career as a writer of short stories is evident here, given the finely observed characters, the poetic intensity of the prose, and a story that has the capacity to slip into another dimension entirely on the turn of a phrase, or an apparently innocuous narrative development.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the novel, aside from the narrative itself, is Bender’s evocation of Los Angeles. Again, her physical descriptions have a poetic quality, particularly when she writes about light and its changing moods, and the impact that those changes have on the city around Rose.
This novel reminded me very much of a novel by Alison MacLeod called THE WAVE THEORY OF ANGELS, a beautifully written tale which also blended an earthy realism, a very likeable heroine and speculative physics.
All told, THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE is a hugely satisfying novel, poignant and uplifting, sad but elementally true to life. Heartily recommended to anyone who enjoys fine writing, layered and complex plotting, and a uniquely distinctive authorial voice. - Declan Burke
THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is published by Windmill Books