The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Magical realism can be an unsettling business, especially when the realism side of the equation is as convincing as it is in this strange but moving novel.
Things begin conventionally enough. Rose Edelstein is a 9-year-old girl growing up in Los Angeles - mum is the homemaker, dad the provider, her elder brother Joseph is nerdy and moody. Then Rose's mother bakes her a cake and when she eats a slice she finds flavours in it that have nothing to do with the ingredients used. The cake tastes hollow and empty.
From then on, every time Rose eats she can taste the emotions of the person who produced the food.
She tastes her mother's secret despair, the weariness of factory farm-produced milk, the love in a ham and cheese sandwich, the sadness in a piece of fruit pie. This isn't the unsettling part by the way. The pureness and clarity of Bender's writing, the sensitivity with which she builds her characters and recounts their lives, makes it seem almost credible that an imaginative child might taste the feelings in food while at an age where she is struggling to understand the world around her.
And so surviving on bland, emotionless junk food Rose grows up. She develops a gentle crush on her brother's best friend and finds the flaws in her family. Aside from her one oddity, she seems a normal enough American girl.
Then, about three quarters of the way through this novel, the magic elbows out the realism. I wasn't ready for what becomes of Rose's brother. I won't give away this part of the plot as it would be too much of a spoiler but suffice to say, things get very weird.
Whether this is too surreal a spin on the traditional coming-of-age story depends entirely on the tastes of the reader. Not everyone will like this book. Some will be frustrated by the questions that Bender never answers and the side roads in the story that seem not to lead anywhere. Others will insist on trying to apply logic to the plot and find themselves flummoxed. But there are bound to be many who appreciate such an original take on those well-worn themes of family, heartbreak and disappointment.
I thought the book was a little uneven - it starts better than it ends - but I do love Bender's prose and I admire her ability to write an ultimately uplifting novel so laced with despair and heartbreak.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was a New York Times best-seller when it was released in the US last year, and I can understand why.