By Megan Whalen
Although Aimee Bender is renowned for her short stories, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” her most recent novel, has earned her much-deserved success as a novelist. Using her signature blend of realistic settings and elements of the paranormal, Bender’s novel simultaneously entrances the reader with mysticism and sheds light on the problems of the modern-day family.
The novel begins with its heroine and narrator, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday, when she discovers something slightly odd when she bites into her mother’s lemon cake. Instead of the delicious cake she knows and loves, Rose tastes her mother’s emotions.
However, Rose’s magical gift is, in actuality, a curse. Her mother, normally bright and cheerful, tastes of bitterness and despair.
From her ninth birthday on, food becomes a peril for Rose as she cannot help but taste, and therefore feel, the emotions of the people who make her food.
Through her curse, Rose is given an unwanted glimpse into the private lives of her family. What normally is kept hidden is impossible for Rose to miss. Her mother’s life outside of the home, her father’s indifference to his family and her brother’s mysterious inability to relate to others all force their way into Rose’s life and mind.
Bender paints a picture of family and of a young girl that is at once insular and incredibly relevant on a universal scale.
Rose’s constant position in the background, both at school and at home, makes her a sympathetic character to the wallflower within us all.
Her family’s inability to communicate is juxtaposed with Rose’s inability to escape their private thoughts and their effect on her throughout her life.
However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is not its commentary on family, but its ability to incorporate magic seamlessly into modern life.
Rose’s gift allows the reader to view the world through a supernatural lens without distorting the reality.
As Rose navigates life, family and, most importantly, food, she finds that perhaps she is not the only one with a strange talent.
Upon opening the novel, our modern, skeptical world is suddenly brimming with enchantment. The supernatural talents of the characters in a modern setting give the novel a realistic mysticism that makes its readers feel that they are delving into a mature version of childhood fairy tales.
Bender’s version of magic does not always grant true love’s kiss or happily ever afters, but it certainly gives her novel an enchanting edge.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” charmingly dances along the line of reality and magic without straying into the implausible.
It is a testament to Bender’s expertise that the novel reinvents classic fairytale motifs and seamlessly blends these motifs with the everyday tragedies of the modern family.
If you grew up loving the Disney classics of the ’90s, this book will make you rethink your perspective on “tales as old as time” and what it means to live in a world where fairy tales rarely end with a prince.