I’m inclined to describe Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (PSLC) with culinary adjectives, because after reading it, I felt as though I had consumed a particularly fulfilling meal. Bender has a gift for infusing the most ordinary, mundane activities with an air of the unfamiliar, or the surreal. Sometimes it’s just a hint, and other times, as in PSLC, it’s central to the plot. However, the unfamiliar still manages to be subtle in this novel; by subtle, I mean that the world in PSLC is clearly recognizable as our world, but with one difference. In this world, some people have what can be described as supernatural “gifts,” although I’m not entirely sure the characters view them favorably.
The protagonist, Rose, lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles with her very nuclear family: one older brother, a mother, and a father. On her 9th birthday, Rose discovers that she can taste the feelings or emotions of the person or people who made her food. She can also taste subtle differences that allow her to determine where the food was made: what state the cows live in, or where the fruit came from. This is such an unusual quirk, and Rose is so young, that as you can imagine, almost nobody believes her. Adults interpret her explanations as symptoms of an eating disorder, or temporary psychosis. Only one person genuinely believes Rose. They also offer the most recognizable definition for her gift: she’s a “food psychic.”
What I think is significant about this term, and its introduction early in the novel, is that it highlights what I referred to earlier: Bender’s gift for infusing the ordinary with the unfamiliar. It might be a stretch to call psychics “ordinary,” but it is a recognized and normalized profession in many ways. There are thousands of psychics in the world; if Rose was a psychic, she would be able to identify herself as belonging to a group. As an adult, she could pursue it as a profession. But, Rose isn’t a psychic. She’s something else, and as far as she can tell, she’s the only one. There is no guide for how to avoid eating food made by people with unpleasant feelings, no clear benefit or advantage to knowing how people feel when they made your meal. Rose is on her own, burdened with an inexplicable gift; a hypersensitivity that seems as though it would be exhausting to endure on a regular basis.
As outlandish as the plot may seem, it makes sense in a strange sort of way. We associate so many emotions with food: love, resentment, guilt, depression, anger—and the act of preparing food is so personal, so human, isn’t it possible that the ingredients we handle absorb these emotions in some way? A friend of mine, after being harassed by two vegetarians at a party (it should be noted, it was in fact, a BBQ, where 95% of the guests ate meat), in an attempt to describe her emotions, said “what you eat, what you decide to put in your body is just…so personal. It’s an intimate act—eating.” And that’s what’s at the heart of this novel: intimacy. Rose develops an intimacy with everyone who prepares her food; she knows their secrets, and even things they sometimes don’t know about themselves. But, is it intimacy if the other person doesn’t know they’ve shared these things with you? It’s something slightly different, but I can’t seem to find the appropriate word to describe it.
I found myself craving food while I read this book (especially lemon cake), but also thinking more about the meals I would prepare for myself. Cooking can be a nourishing and restorative activity, and so can reading. Perhaps that’s why I feel so inclined to compare the experience of reading the novel with that of eating a satisfying meal. It’s well-crafted, thoughtfully executed, and moving. If one were to summarize the plot of PSLC, it might sound like a science-fiction novel, or an episode of the Twilight Zone, but in Bender’s hands, Rose’s story is poignant, honest, and beautiful.
Maria Sclafani is a writer, teacher, tutor, and freelance editor living in Colorado. She shares her home with a cat who is constantly upstaging her on instagram. She received her first library card when she was 10 and hasn’t looked back since. You can find her on twitter @misssclafani