three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Aimee Bender
user_rating: 
0

A-The Particular SadnessAimee Bender has written two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2005), as well as a novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000). Her newest work combines magical realism, fabulism, and fantasy.

The Story: One afternoon in 1970s Los Angeles, nine-year-old Rose Edelstein samples her mother’s lemon-chocolate cake. Yet instead of tasting sweetness, she catches whiffs of depression and despair, which have come from her usually optimistic and cheerful mother. This super sense--the uncanny ability to taste the secret emotions of people who prepare food--starts to oppress Rose and hinder her relationships as she matures. She soon becomes aware of her family’s secrets, as well as her brother’s and father’s unusual gifts, and she starts to view food as treacherous. About learning to understand and cope with family relationships, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake peers deep into the human soul.
Doubleday. 304 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385501125

Globe and Mail 4 of 5 Stars
"There is dream logic, and there is waking logic, and in Bender’s fiction, the two cooperate. They swirl. The result is a hybrid of dream and reality so seamless and persuasive that you will realize (or remember) that you, too, have lived your life on the outskirts of Hollywood, a few blocks south of Sunset." Jessica Grant

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"While Bender delivers plenty of plot surprises, as well as numerous insights into character, my chief pleasure in reading the book was the beauty of the author’s prose, which is both straightforward and unusually sensuous. ... Her dialogue is equally unadorned, and her characters sound as real as Raymond Carver’s--which is to say they remind one of the people next door." Steve Yarbrough

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Her new novel 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. ... Unfortunately, too often she doesn’t push far enough past the fairy-tale elements: unsatisfied wife and mother who finds partial fulfillment in fine woodworking (the Pinocchio echoes enrich this material); emotionally distant, breadwinner husband (an inside-out sitcom character); and the troubled brother’s only friend (too good to be true)." John Repp

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Aimee Bender’s celebrated brand of modern magical realism takes a particularly spare, melancholy turn in her latest. ... Lemon’s story never fully coalesces, but it still lingers long after, like the hum of a half-forgotten melody." Leah Greenblatt

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Rose might be able to identify the emotions of those around her, but that’s not quite as satisfying as seeing them dramatized. ... [Bender is] a writer capable of capturing more than this, by which I mean the painful complexities of love and loss that allow us to recognize the deepest parts of ourselves in our favorite fictional characters." Steve Almond

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The problem ... is that it sometimes looks as if Bender didn’t know where she was going with her story after a certain point. This doesn’t mean that the novel should be ignored." Ariel Gonzalez

Critical Summary

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.

Cited by the Critics

Like Water for Chocolate | Laura Esquivel (1994): The people who eat a young Mexican woman’s offerings magically assume the woman’s emotional state when she made the food.