The Paticular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
If you’re looking for the foodie lit book that shows food uniting and healing, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you like a bit of uncomfortable magic, as I do, Aimee’s novel should be a fascinating read. The title is eye catching and gives a foreshadowing of the theme.
Life is pretty ordinary for Rose Edelson up to her ninth birthday. Then she receives a gift she does not want. With the first bite of her homemade birthday lemon chocolate cake, she tastes her mother’s loneliness and unhappiness. Author Aimee Bender told me, “At first, the gift is just too much for her. Too much flooding of information. I mean, would you want that gift as a kid? It’s rough for her.”
How did the idea for this magic occurs? Aimee explained, “I have a good friend who talks about digesting feelings, and I think she probably planted the seed in me via her language.” Like food, Rose swallows her feelings and her encounters with other people.
Distancing herself from these swallowed emotions, Rose resorts to eating from vending machines, the layers of factory production hiding much of the emotion. She searches for real food that is made by someone who loves food, cooking, people and the world. She wants a meal where “food was the center and the person making food was so connected with the food that I could really, for once, enjoy it.” The same thing could be said for her family.
In most foodie lit, eating food around the table unites and heals. In this foodie dystopia, family meals are excruciating. Digesting emotion is not easy for Rose. She learns that others in her family had other gifts, equally disturbing to them. Her family, like the food, is filled with detachment, pain and dysfunction.
Tasting emotion is the metaphor Aimee uses to show how Rose relates to her world, starting with family. Aimee said, “I think that food in this novel is a holder of something else. I am writing about food but also writing about something unspoken between people. This thought caught me as a writer. I could write concretely about food –an easier metaphor-- but also food helped me write about the emotional internal life of each character. I could have written about togetherness around the table but the internal emotion of individuals are more complex than a good meal shared by a group.”
I asked Aimee if only happy and fulfilled people make food that tastes good.
She laughed and said only for Rose. But she did have a funny story to share. She said that her aunt had read
her novel and then told her about a person’s party she had gone to. The hostess made 2 salads. While
preparing the salads, she spoke negatively to one salad (I hate you lettuce! Carrots you are ugly!) and
positively to the other. Nobody ate the negative salad! “Well-prepared food is satisfying. The most meaningful
meals in a person’s life are tied around what the feeling is in the room, the occasion room. That’s what the
magic is about.” The love that food preparation and eating can bring is a life journey for Rose. At the novel’s
end, she finds a way through cooking to connect to a happier reality.