AIMEE BENDER'S NEWEST, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, isn't terribly promising on paper. The title, first of all, is fraught with a vague, nonspecific angst—what's so sad about lemon cake? Try nothing; it's delicious. The premise is vintage Bender in its weirdness, but it isn't particularly original: Nine-year-old Rose Edelstein has the unwanted ability to taste feelings in food—to determine the mental state of whomever prepared her meal, with only a single bite. It's a great idea, and it was recently used to good effect in the comic book series Chew, about a man with a similar skill set who uses his ability to solve mysteries (the series' author John Layman even coined a term to describe it: cibopath).
But Bender is exceptionally good at what she does, the kind of writer who could take even the tiredest, most hackneyed premise and make it her own. Lemon Cake perfectly embodies Bender's knack for simultaneously appealing to imagination, emotion, and intellect, combining an out-of-this-world premise with very much in-this-world characters. Her work is often dubbed "magical realism," thanks to her tendency to blithely dismiss the physical limitations of our universe—the power of her writing lies in the contrast between her spare, measured sentences, and the limitless metaphorical possibilities those sentences describe.
Lemon Cake should probably be classified as YA fiction—it's a coming-of-age story that follows Rose from age nine through early adulthood. (The book's straightforward approach to childhood strangeness evokes the recent Newbery winner When You Reach Me—itself a strange and beautiful little book that's based on A Wrinkle in Time). Rose first realizes there might be something unusual in her relationship to food as a nine-year-old, when a bite of her mother's lemon cake makes her feel "hollow." (When she tries to explain the experience to a school nurse, the nurse assumes she has an eating disorder. "Do you think you're overweight?" Rose is asked.) Her mother is flighty and unhappy; a taste of that unhappiness is a heavy burden for Rose, one that has her eating processed food from vending machines and begging her parents to take her out for dinner, where at least the cook's feelings won't be so close to home. Via food, Rose learns more about her mother than any child should have to know; when she tries a bite of her mom's homemade pretzels, "It turned out to be the food that best represented her: in every pretzel the screaming desire to make the perfect pretzel, so that the pretzel itself seemed tied up in the tightest of knots, the food form, for once, matching the content."
Rose sees the world through the prism of her own abilities, and her childhood is shattered by her strange capacity. "It can feel so lonely, to see strangers out in the day, shopping, on a day that is not a good one," she thinks, as she looks out the window on the car ride back from the hospital, where she was briefly held, at age nine, after attempting to rip her own mouth out. It is only gradually that she begins to realize other people in her life—including her odd, distant brother—might be similarly afflicted. It's a mark of maturity, this realization, of growing up, and through this process Bender's central theme is revealed: The different afflictions Bender's characters have, and the ways they handle them, serve as a gentle metaphor for different ways of being in the world.