The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
One day you may wake up and realize that your parents don’t love each other and that your mom is painfully unhappy. In Rose’s case, this happens while eating her a slice of birthday cake her mother made from scratch.
But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction As if a sensor, so buried deep inside me, raised its scope to alert my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients–the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons–seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was threatening to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirin as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis in her comment: I’m just going to lie down …None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness.
Now unlocked, Rose finds that she can feel all the emotions of everyone who contributed to the cake – primarily her mother who baked it, but the ones who picked the lemons, ground the flour – everything and everyone, and the hollowness she feels after eating it threatens to overwhelm her. And with every meal she feels everything that contributes to it. Eating has become a horror.
Rose Edlestein doesn’t live in a happy family, but not one that’s obviously unhappy from the outside either. Her father is distant, uncomfortable with his children and doesn’t know how to connect with them, but does love them. Her mother is the opposite. Intense and focused, and her attention threatens to overwhelm her children, like full sunlight on shade loving trees. She fell in love because she thought there was a sign that her marriage was meant to be, and she never really recovers when she finds out during the best man’s toast at her wedding that “the magical incident” was engineered by her husband. Rose’s brother is shy and uncomfortable with rare moments of affection.
And then there’s Rose, unable to hide from the family secrets that threaten to overwhelm her – her mother’s hollow life, and then guilt and euphoria when she takes a lover, and her bother Joseph’s misery that doesn’t seem to have any obvious cause.
At one point Rose shouts her pain and horror and tries to get her family to recognize what’s gone wrong with them, but her mother denies her problems and they implicitly ask her to maintain face – if no one talks about it, then there’s nothing wrong.
Bender is playful and creative in her writing – you can almost feel her pleasure in crafting the words of the story. At the same time, this book is depressing as hell.
There is a classic strain of family misery story (often very successfully in American literature – think The Corrections), stories that make you thankful that your family is not like this (or makes you weep because it is) and while Bender uses magic realism to illuminate the heart of the despair of an unhappy family, this fits firmly in the tradition.
There is no great healing, and the story is at best bittersweet, but in the end, Rose begins to make peace with her special powers and her family. Her brother is not so lucky, and it’s hard not to wonder that Joseph might have survived better if only his family had been more open with him, and how they struggled with similar things. But, this is family, so maybe not.