Medical science reveals that certain diseases and injuries to the human brain allow some people to “hear” colors or “feel” aromas. But the same phenomenon is presented as an enchantment by novelist Aimee Bender in “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” (Doubleday, $25.95), the latest work from one of our most distinctive and accomplished young writers.
The story begins on the day that Rose Edelstein takes a bite of the cake that her mother has baked from scratch for her ninth birthday. The remarkable young Rosie discovers for the first time that, as she puts it, “food is full of feelings,” and she can literally taste the emotions of the person who prepared it.
Bender is a conjurer who takes the mundane settings and events of a mildly dysfunctional family living in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles and transforms them into something rich and strange. The title of her first book, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” suggests what is to be found between the covers of all of her books (including the novels “An Invisible Sign of My Own” and “Willful Creatures”) — a strong dose of magical realism that is rooted in the here-and-now of contemporary American life but allows the reader to glimpse the secrets that are usually locked away in dreams and memories, fantasies and longings.
So it is with the Edelstein family in “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” Rosie is one smart little girl even without her powerful taste buds, and she sees and understands the psychodynamics of her own family — an agreeable but distant father (“The world had matched what he’d dreamed up, and he settled himself inside what they’d made”), an affectionate but troubled mother (“My mother slept in because she did not sleep well”), and a gifted but aloof older brother (“I was mostly an irritation to Joseph, a kind of sister rash,” says Rosie. “Joseph would reach out to me occasionally, the same way the desert blooms every now and then”).
But the surreal and the supernatural are always at work in the tales that Bender tells. Rosie refuses to eat her lunch at school, and she is sent to the nurse’s office. When Rosie reports to the school nurse “there’s a hole in the food,” the nurse suspects anorexia, allergy or maybe just “an active imagination,” but we already know about the young girl’s remarkable gift. She tastes “craving” and “an acidic resentment” in the PBJ sandwich that her mother put in her lunchbox, but when it comes to the butterscotch pudding that her father made from a mix, the food is “so distracted and ziggy I could hardly locate a taste at all.”
As Bender ranges back and forth through Rosie’s childhood memories and experiences, some readers may be tempted to regard her problems as psychiatric rather than psychic. Then, too, the fact that young Rosie sees the world through the eyes of a precocious 9-year-old is an explanation in itself; when she describes a chocolate cookie as “angry” and an oatmeal cookie as “rushed,” it might just be the imaginative wordplay of a little kid.
But Bender plainly intends us to regard Rosie as a bona fide “food psychic,” and it is heartbreaking to see her so afflicted by the meals that her mother makes: “I TASTED YOU, I said, GET OUT MY MOUTH.” Rosie ends up in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai, diagnosed as delusional, but we know better; like the author herself, Rosie is an authentic visionary who can perceive the signs and wonders that are hidden from everyone else, a seer from whom no secret is safe, including the forbidden longings of her unhappy mother and the whereabouts of her shape-shifting brother.
Bender’s book is about “the revealing of things,” as the author herself puts it, and yet the mysteries only deepen as we watch Rose and her brother grow into adulthood. It turns out that Joe has powers of his own, and only Rose knows where her older brother goes when he seems to disappear. Her mother and father, by contrast, may be well-intentioned but they are also blind to the pain that they inflict on their kids, and they are baffled by the secrets that Rose and Joe share with each other.
“Sometimes, she said, mostly to herself, I feel I do not know my children,” observes Rosie in describing her own mother. “That she might not know us seemed the humblest thing a mother could admit.”
There’s a certain genre of American fiction that goes into tight focus on the seemingly ordinary experiences of life — and stays there. Bender brings something else, and something more, to her work. To be sure, she is able to evoke an unhappy family in affecting and convincing detail. But 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.