There's a tendency for many of us to think of the family as a rock of stability and sanity in a world filled with turmoil. That's why it takes an artist like Aimee Bender to remind us of the fragility of a structure that's sometimes more like a sandcastle than the brick edifice it may appear to outsiders. She's carried that off with grace and subtlety in her gently perceptive second novel.
Bender's protagonist is Rose Edelstein, when the novel opens a self-aware nine-year-old living in Los Angeles in the recent, but indeterminate, past. She lives there with her father, a likable, if rather bland lawyer ("a fairly focused man, a smart one with a core of simplicity who had ended up with three highly complicated people sharing the household with him"), her bright but disaffected mother ("My mother had trouble choosing and sticking but she was initially good at everything") and her brother Joseph, five years her senior, a science whiz who can't translate his genius into academic success. To round out the family, there's a maternal grandmother in Washington State who's slowly discarding the detritus of her life --- from card table chairs to cracked salad bowls --- in bizarre, periodic shipments to the Edelsteins' home.
In the family kitchen one morning, Rose tastes the lemon cake with chocolate icing her mother has baked for her birthday and discovers that "food is full of feelings," unveiling her aptitude for discerning the emotions of the person who prepared it. But in the case of her mother's cake, Rose quickly perceives the mixed blessing her talent confers, observing that "with each bite, I thought --- mmm, so good, the best ever, yum --- but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." Joseph's brilliant friend, George Malcolm, calls her a "food psychic," and takes her to a bakery where she discovers an "angry" chocolate chip cookie and a "yelling" ham and cheese sandwich. What Aimee Bender has made real in Rose's strange discovery is that for all of us food is intertwined with a wide-ranging swirl of emotions, and so it's almost possible to imagine those feelings translated, as they are for Rose, into tangible form.
And while Bender is known for the quirky vision that marks many of her stories, she refrains from playing the bizarre nature of Rose's gift for pure shock value. Instead, she portrays Rose as a brave young woman striving valiantly to patch the cracks in the foundation of her family's life. Rose is tolerant, wise beyond her years and sensitive to the burden she's been forced to bear: "Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life," she concedes, "and I didn't appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early."
But as time passes and Rose moves on through middle and high school, the family slowly unravels. Her mother enrolls in classes at a woodworking co-op and soon slips into an affair with one of her colleagues, a fact 12-year-old Rose discovers when she sits down to a dinner of roast beef and potatoes and receives "such a wallop of guilt and romance in my first mouthful that I knew, instantly, that she'd met someone else." Joseph fails to secure admission to any of the colleges to which he applies and instead enters a local community college and takes up residence in a rundown apartment complex. His mysterious disappearances, starting with the day he's to graduate from high school, roil the family's life. And yet, through all this, the Edelsteins manage to maintain some semblance of normalcy, a state achieved mostly through Rose's fierce determination that it be so. By the end of the story, now in her early 20s, she's ready to embark on a new life, one that makes use of her special talent in a rewarding way.
It's hard to imagine a more empathetic portrait of a troubled family than the one painted by Aimee Bender in this gentle, kindhearted novel. There's a wistful quality to the almost fable-like tale that's captured with near perfection in her understated prose. As in all fine novels, the Edelsteins' story, in Bender's telling, is one that reflects our own world back to us in a fresh and revealing way.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 19, 2011
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake