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'Lemon Cake' Offers Up A Surreal Slice Of Salinger

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

In Aimee Bender's high-hearted and soulful second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, young Rose Edelstein discovers at age 9 that she can taste the emotions in her mother's lemon cake -- "absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." Horrified, she tries to talk to her mother about her unhappiness, only to face a blank mask of denial. "I was having trouble trusting her cheer," Rose notes. "I knew if I ate anything of hers again it would likely give me the same message: Help me, I am not happy ... And now my job was to pretend I did not get the message."

Bender's short stories have a fabulist flair. In this novel, she weaves elaborate surreal elements -- Rose's extrasensory mouth, her older brother Joseph's ability to "disappear" into a virtual catatonic state -- into a realistic narrative, replete with descriptions of Los Angeles weather patterns, the textures of vending-machine food and the byproducts of Rose's mother's study of woodworking (she begins an affair with her instructor that only Rose senses -- in this case, in an improvement in the emotional content of the dinners she serves). Bender's nod to Brillat-Savarin in her epigraph sets up her central metaphor brilliantly: "Food is all those substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses which the human body suffers through the art of living."

Rose's nuanced responses to food mirror the emotional intensity of growing up in a Los Angeles family with its share of troublesome quirks. Bender has created, in Rose and her family--her fragile and trapped mother; her dutiful and strange father, who is so phobic about hospitals he awaited the birth of his children on the sidewalk outside; her brother, Joseph, perceived by his mother and early teachers as a science genius, whose weirdness Rose senses will gradually overwhelm his intellectual gifts -- a set of characters who could be modern-day descendants of J.D. Salinger's Glass family. Precocious Rose has a Salingeresque alertness to hypocrisies at home and school, a detestation of the phoniness she sees in her parents and a haunting vulnerability. Her ties to Joseph bring to mind the powerful sibling bonds of Franny and Zooey, and of Holden Caulfield and his younger sister Phoebe.

Joe's only friend, George, another science nerd, serves as the relatively normal character in this novel. He confirms Rose's newfound sense of taste by conducting empirical tests and proclaiming her a "magic food psychic." George is the only one who really listens to Rose, the only one she can turn to for help over the years. With the others, even Joseph, she learns to keep the truth underground, a survival trick that keeps her from drowning in her family's mysteries.

Bender convinces us effortlessly that by the time Rose is a high school graduate, she can tell the terroir of the ingredients in food she eats -- the quiche in a French cafe, for instance, has eggs from Michigan, cream from Nevada, milk from Fresno, bacon from an organic farm in Northern California, and parsley from San Diego (she also knows the parsley farmer is a jerk.) And she concludes this virtuoso performance with a flourish by showing us a surprising yet somehow inevitable future, where Rose's particular gift brings its own rewards.

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Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fireand California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.comamong others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.