A review of Aimee Bender’s “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”


lemon-112x150Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010). Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. She’s received two Pushcart prizes, and was nominated for the TipTree award in 2005, and the Shirley Jackson short story award in 2010. Her fiction has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC.

Check out our interview with the author here!

A truly “great” book is that which lingers with me long after the cover has been closed and the book has been put back on the shelf. For me, Aimee Bender’s latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, was one of those books.

If you haven’t read any of Bender’s work before, you are especially in for a treat. She seamlessly weaves magical elements into everyday life, bringing out the extraordinary in the ordinary world. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake centers on Rose Edelstein, who, on the eve of her ninth birthday, eats a slice of homemade lemon cake and tastes the profound despair of her outwardly cheerful, can-do mother. Rose discovers she has the gift – or curse – of tasting emotions in food: weary milk, angry cookies, resentful grape jelly. Eating her mother’s chicken and rice makes Rose weep at the dinner table, and she can hardly swallow a bite of her older brother Joseph’s toast.

Although the book is written in first person from Rose’s perspective, at times Rose possesses an omniscient wisdom because of her ability to taste the emotions of other people through food. Bender expertly juggles this unique narrative situation. Rose (and the reader) are privy to the inner feelings, desires, and secrets of the other characters, yet often this knowledge only raises more questions. Through the circumstances of Rose’s gift/curse, Bender explores the relationship between knowledge and love, and how well we can ever really know even those people closest to us.

When it comes to writing from a child’s perspective, Bender is one of the best. As I sank into the voice of nine-year-old Rose, I simultaneously reconnected with my own child-self, remembering the details I had long forgotten: the school drinking fountain “half stopped up with pink gum” and the “warm metallic” taste of the water; the “moth-encrusted” windows of the school bus; the “flat hard green carpet” of the classroom library, with the books “about animals getting into fixes.” The specificity of Bender’s prose is what keeps the reader grounded in the story, even as Rose grows older and the strangeness of her world spirals outward.

I highly recommend The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake to anyone who is looking for an imaginative, entrancing read that delves into the bittersweet complexities of family, love, and growing up.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Doubleday (June 1, 2010)

304 pages, $25.95 Hardcover


woodburn_red_dress-150x150Dallas Woodburn is pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction at Purdue University. Her
short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Dzanc Books “Best
of the Web” anthology and has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Arcadia Journal, and
The Newport Review, among others. Learn more about her nonprofit youth literacy
organization “Write On!” at http://www.writeonbooks.org.