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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake [Paperback]

Aimee Bender
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (474 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Taking her very personal brand of pessimistic magical realism to new heights (or depths), Bender's second novel (following An Invisible Sign of My Own) careens splendidly through an obstacle course of pathological, fantastical neuroses. Bender's narrator is young, needy Rose Edelstein, who can literally taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food, giving her unwanted insight into other people's secret emotional lives—including her mother's, whose lemon cake betrays a deep dissatisfaction. Rose's father and brother also possess odd gifts, the implications of which Bender explores with a loving and detailed eye while following Rose from third grade through adulthood. Bender has been called a fabulist, but emerges as more a spelunker of the human soul; carefully burrowing through her characters' layered disorders and abilities, Bender plumbs an emotionally crippled family with power and authenticity. Though Rose's gift can seem superfluous at times, and Bender's gustative insights don't have the sensual potency readers might crave, this coming-of-age story makes a bittersweet dish, brimming with a zesty, beguiling talent. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Surprisingly, only a couple of critics mentioned that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a derivative of Like Water for Chocolate, though Bender reverses Laura Esquivel's premise. But even those who noted the similarity praised Bender's original take on love, sorrow, and relationships and her surreal, sumptuous writing, particularly in her descriptions of food (only one critic faulted some awkward prose). Still, the novel garnered mixed reviews. Some critics disliked Rose's brother's characterization and the novel's lack of emotional tension, despite its plot. And many felt that the second half of the novel lacked direction and failed to take the fairy-tale elements to a deeper level. Readers willing to suspend their disbelief, however, will find much to enjoy here. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Eating the cake her mother has prepared for her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she has a gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the food she prepares. Soon, every bite Rose takes is filled with feelings—not just her mother’s but those of other people as well—and what might have been a gift becomes a burden and then, perhaps, a curse. Because this is a novel rooted in family, Rose will learn that she is not the only Edelstein with a peculiar gift or burden. How she and others learn to cope—or not, as the case may be—is the small, sad story Rose shares. Bender’s earlier work has often been described as surrealistic; however, this novel seems more informed by a kind of magical realism that struggles with transformation and sometimes—fleetingly—succeeds, as in the case of the novel’s vividly realized Los Angeles setting. But the effect soon fades, and the reader is left only with a lingering feeling of emptiness and the realization that sadness tastes a lot like bitterness. --Michael Cart --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“Moving, fanciful, and gorgeously strange.” —People

“One of the year’s highlights. Intense and compelling.” —The Oregonian

“Marvelous. . . . Few writers are as adept as Bender at mingling magical elements so seamlessly with the ordinary.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“A richly imagined, bittersweet tale.” —Vanity Fair
 
“Convincing and elegant. . . . A novel with a deeply involving plot, one full of provocative ideas.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Extraordinary. . . . Not just a deeply felt novel but one of the most inventive pieces of food writing in recent memory.” —Time Out New York 

“Profound and eye-opening. . . . You feel—that rare and beautiful gift from a truly great book—woken up and unalone.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Rose is an irresistible narrator: warm, witty and sharply observant. . . . Exuberant, life-affirming.” —The Miami Herald

“Oddly beautiful. . . . Will tempt you to see what talented writers can do when they rip little tears in the fabric of reality.” —The Washington Post
 
“The fairy-tale elements in her writing, far from seeming outlandish, highlight the everyday nature of her characters’ flaws and struggles. In Ms. Bender’s stories and novels, relationships and mundane activities take on mythic qualities.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Charming and wistful. . . .  [Rose] studies her world with the thoroughness of a scientist but records her observations with the eye and ear of a poet.” —The Atlantic
 
“The fabulist elements of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake are stunning, but what makes this novel a keeper is the sheer beauty of the language Bender uses to describe love.”  —NPR, “Books We Like”
 
“[The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake] has the narrative momentum and clockwork plotting of any good mystery, but its bleak whimsy and clear-eyed rendering of domestic sorrow are Bender’s own. . . .  Splendid.” —The Plain Dealer
 
Rose comes of age while unraveling family secrets as strangely lucid as they are nightmarish. At its core . . . The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake encourages us all to make the most of our unique gifts while still finding a way to live in the so-called real world.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“A dreamy novel. . . . This is one of the most pleasant books we’ve read all year.” —The New York Observer 

 “Deftly written. . . . There is a . . . sweetness to the book that turns it into something out of the ordinary.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Bender is the master of quiet hysteria. . . . She builds pressure sentence by sentence. . . . A little hiss of steam comes off the novel.” —Los Angeles Times

“A very special book.” —The Anniston Star
 
“Bender doesn’t write of ordinary people. She writes of magical creations, the things of fairy tales gone awry. . . . Part magic, part clean prose.” —Denver Post
 
“If you’ve ever wondered why people have such a hard time looking in strangers’ eyes as they walk down the street, this book, hard as it may be to face, is for you.” —LA Weekly
 
“There’s an evocative power in Bender’s work that lingers with a reader.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“[Bender] produce[s] stories that make one grateful for being ordinary.” —The Seattle Times
 
“[A] 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 Aimee Bender’s telling, is one that reflects our own world back to us in a fresh and revealing way.” —Bookreporter.com
 
“The ultimate fact is that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is probably the strangest book you’ll never want to put down.” —Pittsburgh Tribune
 
“Aimee Bender creates a lilting, economical and finally tragic portrait of what it means to be a child in her exquisite new novel.” —Chicago Tribune
 
Lemon Cake perfectly embodies Bender’s knack for simultaneously appealing to imagination, emotion, and intellect, combining an out-of-this-world premise with very much in-this-world characters.” —Portland Mercury
 
“Aimee Bender is also something of a sorceress who charges her stories with pure magic, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is an example of what she does best.” —Jewish Journal



About the Author

Aimee Bender is the author of the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own and the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her work has been widely anthologized and has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.

My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.

How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches of twinned red cherries.

On the kitchen counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm-eyed mother were welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of brown-sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.

She said there was about an hour to go, so I pulled out my spelling booklet. Can I help? I asked, spreading out pencils and papers on the vinyl place mats.

Nah, said Mom, whisking the flour and baking soda together.

My birthday is in March, and that year it fell during an especially bright spring week, vivid and clear in the narrow residential streets where we lived just a handful of blocks south of Sunset. The night-blooming jasmine that crawled up our neighbor’s front gate released its heady scent at dusk, and to the north, the hills rolled charmingly over the horizon, houses tucked into the brown. Soon, daylight savings time would arrive, and even at nearly nine, I associated my birthday with the first hint of summer, with the feeling in classrooms of open windows and lighter clothing and in a few months no more homework. My hair got lighter in spring, from light brown to nearly blond, almost like my mother’s ponytail tassel. In the neighborhood gardens, the agapanthus plants started to push out their long green robot stems to open up to soft purples and blues.

Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had one bowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles.

A cake challenge like this wasn’t a usual afternoon activity; my mother didn’t bake all that often, but what she enjoyed most was anything tactile, and this cake was just one in a long line of recent varied hands-on experiments. In the last six months, she’d
coaxed a strawberry plant into a vine, stitched doilies from vintage lace, and in a burst of motivation installed an oak side door in my brother’s bedroom with the help of a hired contractor. She’d been working as an office administrator, but she didn’t like copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when my father paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him if she could take some time off and learn to do more with her hands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hips against his; my hands have had no lessons in anything.

Anything? he’d asked, holding tight to those hands. She laughed, low. Anything practical, she said.

They were right in the way, in the middle of the hall, as I was leaping from room to room with a plastic leopard. Excuse me, I said.

He breathed in her hair, the sweet- smelling thickness of it. My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped in his two-footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the
call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird-watcher. Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back.

Rah, said the leopard, heading back to its lair.


At the kitchen table, I flipped through my workbook, basking in the clicking sounds of a warming oven. If I felt a hint of anything unsettling, it was like the sun going swiftly behind a cloud only to shine straight seconds later. I knew vaguely that my parents had had an argument the night before, but parents had arguments all the time, at home and on TV. Plus, I was still busily going over the bad point scoring from lunch, called by Eddie Oakley with the freckles, who never called fairly. I read through my spelling booklet: knack, knick, knot; cartwheel, wheelbarrow, wheelie. At the counter, Mom poured thick yellow batter into a greased cake pan, and smoothed the top with the flat end of a pink plastic spatula. She checked the oven temperature, brushed
a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead with the knob of her wrist.

Here we go, she said, slipping the cake pan into the oven.

When I looked up, she was rubbing her eyelids with the pads of her fingertips. She blew me a kiss and said she was going to lie down for a little bit. Okay, I nodded. Two birds bickered outside. In my booklet, I picked the person doing a cartwheel and colored her shoes with red laces, her face a light orange. I made a vow to bounce the ball harder on the playground, and to bounce it right into Eddie Oakley’s corner. I added some apples to the wheelbarrow freehand.

The room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugar and lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulled out the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet. The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go, and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I really couldn’t possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan, to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongy chunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped the whole thing into my mouth.
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