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Aimee Bender
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Doubleday / Random House
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-50112-5
Publication Date: 06-01-2010
360 pages, $ 25.95
Date Reviewed: 07-12-2010

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  Horror  Science Fiction

It's the mix that matters. Not the balance, but rather the tilt from one state to another, from one emotion to another, where our lives take place. We only realize that we are sad because we were once happy; we only achieve happiness in reference to grief. In those moments when our moods change, when we grow, when we learn, when we become the next versions of ourselves, we are writing our own stories.

Aimee Bender's 'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake' literally and literarily synthesizes this sense of motion and emotion, measuring the differences between who we are and who we appear to be. She captures with perfection the moments in our lives when those people cease to be the same in the journey of Rose Edelstein, a girl who learns at the age of nine that her mother is unhappy — and why.

Bender's second novel is a beautifully understated work of supernatural suburbiana. Yes we have all the markers of a full-blown horror novel here; a troubled family, and a young girl who discovers that she has supernatural talent. But Bender works the story from the opposite side of the spectrum. Rose's parents have common, but solvable problems. Rose's talent is undeniable and troubling, but not life threatening. Rose's small life — a decent suburban school, a big brother who may be a genius but is certainly troubled, a mother who goes through a series of jobs trying to find a place in the world — is generously evoked with a strong sense of story. Aimee Bender loves her characters and their odd lives, and readers are likely to as well.

The Edelstein family is the center of the plot here, with lots of well-written and carefully sculpted character arcs that are genuine and genuinely compelling. We see everything through the eyes of Rose at the age of nine, and again in steps as she grown older. When she first learns that she can taste the emotions of those who cooked her food, Rose has her first inkling that even her parents may not be what they seem. Bender does a superb job as a writer of the uncanny and the supernatural, exploring Rose's "power" with precision. Bender's very smart in this regard, creating and expanding both the readers and Rose's understanding of what she learns from food. In terms of creating a very naturalistic evocation of the supernatural, Bender's novel is second to none. She's also quite adept at evoking an almost Lovecraftian or Borgesian sense of terror, a sense that there is an otherness about in this world that can simply dissolve our expectations without even noticing that we exist.

But Bender is really quite crafty in her exploration of Rose, because we're also getting to know the rest of the family. Her mother's quest for definition takes a turn that could easily lead to melodrama, but Bender resists this temptation and fashions a much more compelling story as a result. Her brother, Joseph, is an increasingly troubled young man, whose story could also be told too vividly. Instead, Bender opts for the uncanny in surreal, terrifying scenes that will replay in the reader's memory like a repeated dream. Rose's father is slyly undertold, but he, too has every bit as fascinating a journey as the rest of this family. Bender sets up everything in a most satisfying manner with allusions that carry us forward and are rewarded as we get to know the Edelsteins.

'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake' looks like and in many ways reads like a superbly crafted work of literary fiction. But don't let the fantastic quality of Bender's character work, or her fabulous evocation of suburban Los Angeles fool you. This is easily the best "urban fantasy" you're going to read this year, and perhaps in many years. Forget about faerie wars and supernatural detectives. Think about the world around you about the mysteries it conceals, about the mysteries you yourself conceal. There's so much more to us than meets the eye. But all the senses together, including our sense of love, of honor of family — that's a synesthesia that is naturally supernatural. Aimee Bender evokes the very taste of life.

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