Posts Tagged ‘the particular sadness of lemon cake’

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

June 15, 2011

A puppet at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California reads the blurb I wrote for Aimee Bender’s last book, back when it was new and I still worked there.


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

May 30, 2010

Ms. Bender has outdone herself. She is my favorite and I love her and we are in love and we are gay married, so take from this review what you will, but…. like, I have loved her other books, and I always say that she’s a short story writer more than a novelist (like Lorrie Moore or Amy Bloom, although pretty unlike those two otherwise), but I may stand corrected. I mean, this one makes An Invisible Sign of My Own (which, by the way, was supposed to become a terrible movie, wasn’t it?) look kind of one-dimensional.

Also, it feels like… okay. Aimee Bender does this thing where stuff in her stories wouldn’t happen in the real world, like a narrator’s boyfriend turns into a newt or whatever. In short stories, it works because that metaphor, the literalization of a subtext or whatever, doesn’t have to go deep enough to sustain three hundred pages. You’ve got a setting, and then that metaphor, and then you twist it, and then maybe you twist it again: thirty pages, fifty pages, you’re done. In her last novel, there wasn’t as much, like… I don’t want to call it magical relaism, mostly ’cause compared to what Ms. Bender does, “magical realism” feels a lot less interesting and contemporary, especially now that it’s thirty years after the heyday of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maybe just magic? But in An Invisible Sign of My Own there wasn’t that much magic happening. It was there, but it was subtle; the focus was on gore, and feelings, and surreal neighborhood/community weirdness. It was way more surreal than unreal.

In this one, though, the hook is something unreal: Rose can taste the feelings people were feeling when they were making the food she eats. Every day growing up she tastes the desperation her mother is concealing. It’s pretty brutal. But so instead of that unreal thing making the story into a magical farce or surreal odyssey or whatever, it kind of becomes just a thing in the novel that might as well be a hypersensitivity on the part of the narrator or something; the story isn’t about this magical thing, although it is about the sadness- the PARTICULAR sadness, if you feel me- that comes from this magic thing. It would be a different story if Rose couldn’t taste folks’ feelings, and the other unreal thing that happens in the story- which I’m not going to tell you about- would feel a lot more out of place without it, but it’s just a hook. It’s not the whole story.

So I guess the amazing thing is how that weird hook is just a thread in the majestic tapestry (puke, puke) of suburban feelings that’s otherwise totally relatable and sweet and brutal and true to growing up a sad kid. Y’know?

Also, it’s interesting how that makes this a food book. How hot are food books right now? Everybody has a total boner for sustainable agriculture, and whatever Michael Pollan has to say about vegetables, and urban farming, and local food, and all that stuff, which makes its way into The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, without actually making it a part of that zeitgeist. I mean, I groaned when I realized how much Rose would be talking about the farmers who are growing the food that tastes organic or not organic, or desperate or, because I was like Oh boring, another book about sustainable organic local food: I GET IT, BORING. It’s not a dominant theme or anything, but it is there, which makes this book feel pretty 2010. So.

What else can I tell you… Aimee Bender’s sentences are always beautiful, every single one of them, and the final paragraph is astounding and amazing (although it might not seem that way if you remember that I told you that, so try and forget it; it’s understated amazing, not punch you in the face amazing, although I guess it’s a little bit punch you in the face amazing too). A hundred stars!

(This review is from my old goodreads account.)