Book Simple: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
a blogumn by Amy Brown
My mother made me the best birthday cake when I was little. It was tiered, pink-frosted and decorated with gummy candies; it looked like a sugar palace and is still the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever eaten. I thought of Mom’s cake as I read the opening of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. “Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges.” It’s our narrator’s ninth birthday, and her mother is baking Rose a cake. “Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had one bowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles.” It’s a lemon cake with chocolate frosting: “warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar.” It’s also the flavor of discontent, misery and emptiness.
Rose can taste emotions. She discovers the skill on her ninth birthday, but soon it expands outwards. “The recess milk carton was fine. But almost everything else – the cake, the chicken dinner, the homemade brownie, the craving in the peanut butter sandwich – [leaves Rose] with varying degress of the same scary feeling.” Rose discovers her mother’s stifled dreams in her lovingly packed school lunches and home-cooked dinners. The terrifying world of adult emotion reveals itself through every meal.
Her scientifically-inclined brother Joseph and his friend George take Rose to experiment; can she taste the emotions of people other than her mother? At a bakery, Rose is startled to see George eat the other halves of her experimental cookies “without tasting even a speck of the hurry in Janet’s oatmeal, which was so rushed it was like eating the calendar of an executive, or without catching a glimpse of the punching bag tucked beside every chocolate chip.”
Disliking the emotional information contained within the food, Rose begins to eat packaged food, “learning the subtle differences in tightness and flatness from the various factories across the country.” Her father similarly avoids human entanglement; he is a man “with a core of simplicity who had ended up with three highly complicated people sharing the household with him.” Desperate to avoid the messiness of life, her father can’t enter a hospital, not even to see his children being born. “For Joseph’s birth…when [Rose’s mother] was done, she shuffled to the window in her torn hospital gown and held the screaming little baby up. Dad was just a small figure on the sidewalk…Mom dripped blood onto the floor. Dad lit up a cigar, passed out extras to pedestrians.” Rose’s father detaches himself from life, and his daughter is tempted to live the same way.
Will she escape into her Oreos, or manage the emotions life generates? Bender begins the novel with an epigraph from Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste: “Food … repair[s] the losses which the human body suffers through the act of living.” Rose learns to share her talent with others as she grows up; she turns toward the world rather than away. But the novel is better than just uplifting; Rose’s journey is an allegory for modern eating that makes its point without Michael Pollan’s pedantry. Read it after a good meal, made by someone who loves you.
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