I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

This is the third book I have read by Aimee Bender and I place it third on the list, which does not mean it is a bad book by any means. I really liked it. I just liked the other two, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and An Invisible Sign of My Own better. Aimee Bender is an odd writer and this book is odder than the other two.  My book club read this book and a lot of them had trouble understanding this book. I did not, but perhaps that is because I have an odd mind. The author apparently gave an interview once describing her books as fairy tales, which I fail to see, but which helped explain the book to the people in the club.

On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein sneaks a bite of her mother's homemade lemon cake with chocolate frosting. It is a very special treat for her. When she tastes the cake, she finds that she can taste the emotions of the person, her mother, who made the cake, as well as where all the ingredients came from. She can feel the hollowness and despair her mother is feeling. Dinner, it turns out, is just as bad.

Rose lives in Los Angles. Her father goes to work every day and has little to do with her or her brother, simply because he has never known what to do with babies or children. He has a dreaded fear of hospitals and stood outside her mom's window when she gave birth to both her and her older brother Joseph, a genius, who is very odd himself.  Rose's mom is notorious for becoming interested in something for a while and then dropping it and moving on to something else. She is into carpentry right now and has just taken a job making tables and chairs. Joseph's only friend from school, George, is quite handsome, as well as smart and kind and when Rose tells him about how food tastes funny, he takes a scientific approach to study it.  He has her eat processed foods, foods he makes, foods Joseph makes, foods from the fridge and tell him what she senses as he takes notes. "So every food has a feeling, George said when I tried to explain to him about the acidic resentment in the grape jelly. I guess, I said. A lot of feelings, I said." The best foods, it turns out, are the ones made by no one that come from a factory, because they taste as they should.

That night at dinner--leftovers--Rose's mom is telling them about her first day at work and her dad shrugs it off. Rose makes an attempt to try to explain to them about what is going on with her, that the "food has feelings", but they do not understand. Then Rose gets upset with them all and tells her father to look at her mom and she says to him that her mom wants support. Her mom, embarrassed by the truth, quickly says she was "just teasing", but it doesn't matter, because the dad is still clueless anyway. Joseph, as usual, is off in his own world.

That Saturday, Rose, Joseph, and George go downtown to a cookie shop to eat cookies. When Rose eats the first cookie she senses the anger in the baker. George tastes his and senses nothing. He goes to the counter to ask who baked them. With his natural charm and friendliness, George got the guy behind the counter who made the chocolate chip cookies to talk to him and found out that he really hates his job and he even hates cookies. When she eats the oatmeal cookie she senses someone in a hurry. It turns out that Janet, who baked those, is always running late. The guy at the counter became curious about his sandwich, so she tried it, and while it was a good sandwich, the sandwich itself was yelling at her to "love me". It turns out the guy's girlfriend makes his sandwiches. Rose isn't quite sure what to say, so she just says "The sandwich wants you to love it." George asks the guy if he loves her and he just shrugs. Meanwhile, Rose is being overwhelmed with all of the emotions coming from the sandwich that this guy seems oblivious to. George quickly gets her out of there and they go home. When Rose asks George what she should do, he really doesn't have an answer for her, other than learn to live with it, or maybe you'll grow out of it. At this point, the experiment is over for him. Rose is in love with him, of course and she also knows that nothing will ever come of it, and she is lucky that he has been so nice to the little sister of his friend.

Her mother has difficulty with sleep and would get up at 2am and Rose from a very early age would hear her down in the kitchen and wake up and go down to her and lay in her lap as she drank tea, hoping to calm her down, as Rose fell back asleep. One morning, Rose realizes that her mother has stayed up all night cooking and has a pie for her to taste and there is no way out of it. She took a bite, hoping, though knowing it was fruitless, that this time it would be different. Of course it wasn't and she began grabbing paper towels and scrubbing her tongue begging her mother to take it out of her mouth. The overwhelming sense of craving and desperation in the pie was more than she could handle. She had been avoiding her mother's baked goods (her mother had been taking them to give to her boss) and mixing potato chips with dinner. At lunch she either ate other people's lunches or the pizza made by a sad lunch lady, whose emotion she could cope with. Her mother takes her to the hospital where they run some tests and make sure she isn't anorexic and Rose realizes no one is ever going to understand her so she just does what she needs to do to get out.

When Rose was twelve, she took a bite of the roast beef and potatoes dinner and got a wallop of guilt and romance. That is how she found out her mother was having an affair. She had been looking nicer, dressing up more, and seemed happier. As she eats more and her mother talks at the table (she's the only one who really talks now) Rose catches the name Larry in the food and finds out that Larry is the co-op President, which explains why she has stuck it out doing carpentry all this time. Joseph was applying for colleges, but really only wanted to go to Cal-tech with George and was already packing up his room to leave, even though it was only February. At this point she could now identify forty states in the produce or meat that she ate and was constantly learning more. She could tell you which county the egg came from.

This was when her brother Joseph began to disappear, but Rose was the only one who noticed. When their parents went out they insisted that Joseph babysit Rose even if she was well past that age. One night she could not find him. She even broke the rule and went into his room, and while she could sense him, she did not see him. Rose began running around the house turning on all the lights desperate to find him, when he suddenly appears in the hallway outside their rooms saying he had been in her room the whole time. He has bags under his eyes and lines on his cheeks and doesn't look to good.  Then Joseph doesn't get into any of the colleges he applied to and he seems to go downhill from there.

Rose's mother does love her, but Joseph is her everything. Her father is totally disconnected from the family and the times when Rose attempts to form a relationship with him seem to fail.  Her mother is having an affair with another man and is around less, but this does not bother Rose too much, partly because the food tastes better, but also because she sees that her mother is happy.  Rose lives in a family that is basically absent. Even her brother keeps disappearing, in a very weird way, in his case. She is on her own, except for a few friends at school who really don't know what is going on with her, even her friend Eliza who has known her since they were kids, whose sandwiches were heavenly, because she came from such a caring, happy family.  Rose will have to find her own place in this world that she seems to know so much and so little about, and find a way to accept herself for who she is and others who can too.

Note: In the book club, one of the members makes the allegation that Joseph commits suicide. I strongly disagree with this. 

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Particular-Sadness-Lemon-Cake/dp/0385720963/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460749599&sr=1-1&keywords=the+particular+sadness+of+lemon+cake

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