As excited as I was to read this book, I had also become uncertain. I fell in love with Bender’s quirks in her two short story collections (“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures”), but none of those quirks seemed to lend themselves to long-form storytelling. In my mind, I had defined Bender’s style not only by her flashy, magical-realist conceits, but also by her fragmented, singsong prose. Quotation marks are few and far-between. Her characters, if there are any, tend to be thin and open to the reader’s interpretation. I loved her stories, but I could not imagine following something like that for longer than ten pages or so.
It was around the tenth page when I realized I loved this book. It was at least a hundred pages later when I realized why.
“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” has all the aforementioned hallmarks of a good Aimee Bender story. The twist was just surreal enough, and the prose was just fractured enough, and the voice was just cutesy enough, but none of these things pushed the novel into greatness. That happened because of the characters.
The novel tells the story of Rose, a young girl who discovers the ability to taste emotions in foods. When she tastes her mother’s misery in her birthday cake, her eyes are opened to complex and grown-up world of her parents’ quietly troubled marriage. As fun and interesting as the magic ability is, Rose’s maturation and the interplay of the family is what drives the book.
Through short vignette chapters and the watchful eye of the protagonist, Bender crafts each character as sincere and sympathetic. No one is wrong or right, and the narration holds no recriminations or judgment. For a story about magic cake eaters, the characters are beautifully realistic.
“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” is garnering rave reviews and good sales, and while it is always pleasant to see a good author being rewarded, Aimee Bender has never been more worthy. Seeing her stretch her talents has made me more eager for her next book to be released. And I hope it’s a novel.