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Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender's writing awakens in me a longing for cartoon families and longer eyelashes, for two dimensions instead of three. She conjures a landscape from my childhood. It is part Hollywood, part fairy tale. I am enchanted. I love my long eyelashes. Then she pulls aside the curtain. Look, she says. It's a set. And the people in this 2-D landscape are not 2-D, though they are pretending very hard. It is sad, how hard they are pretending. But look, they are fathomless, shadowy creatures. The world snaps into 3-D. And while you are sad to see the cartoon family go, you are under a new spell, the spell of seeing a spell dispelled. Only Aimee Bender can do this. Her new novel is profound and eye-opening and, yes, sad. Also funny.

It begins with a lemon cake. A few days before her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein comes home from school (she lives just outside Hollywood, a few blocks south of Sunset) and is greeted at the door by her mother. Rose's mother has a blond ponytail and wears an apron. She is warm and lemony. "How about a practice round?" she asks, drawing her daughter across the threshold with a hug.

Enter the cake. A pre-birthday cake.

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Understand, there is nothing wrong with the cake. If you or I were to taste it, we would pat our stomachs and say, "Mmmm, delicious." But what Rose tastes is sadness. In particular, her mother's sadness. She tastes "absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." The cake is a message her mother is sending her without knowing she is sending it, a message Rose is not ready for and cannot digest.

Rose eats the cake and falls asleep and when she wakes, her eyelids are so heavy it's as if "tiny lead weights had been strung, fishing-line style, onto each lash." An eye-opening moment.

Outside, it is still almost-Hollywood, and so bright you want sunglasses, but the flowers have dark centres. Also, the sun is always setting. And Rose now carries a dark secret inside her. She has a new skill, a sad superpower. She can taste people's feelings in the food they make. She can taste anger in a cookie. Adultery in roast beef. She can taste secrets, and pain.

Slowly, she adapts. Whenever possible, she eats processed food (fewer feelings to process). She develops a love of vending machines. (There's a funny and moving tribute to the Dorito.) When forced to eat her mother's food, she distracts herself from the emotional ingredients by focusing on the material ones. Soon, she can identify potato farms and pasta factories, truck routes and tomato pickers. She can tell a California orange from a Florida orange in less than five seconds. She knows with certainty if a food is organic.

Meanwhile, her family comes into new and disturbing focus. Or almost-focus. Because the paradoxical effect of Rose's skill is that it illuminates those around her just enough to make her feel all the more in the dark. Who are these people, she wonders. A father, a "tight box of Dadness," whose fear of hospitals is so acute that his first sight of his baby daughter is through binoculars from the sidewalk below. A supermom, relentlessly cheerful and industrious, who at her core is lost and lonely. And a brother, Joseph, a distant planet, who spirals farther and farther away, perfecting a strange skill of his own.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is magical, but it is not magic realism. It is more robust than that. There is dream logic, and there is waking logic, and in Bender's fiction, the two co-operate. They swirl. The result is a hybrid of dream and reality so seamless and persuasive that you will realize (or remember) that you, too, have lived your life on the outskirts of Hollywood, a few blocks south of Sunset.

Bender gives you the three dimensions plus the two we hide behind. You love the cartoon family. You love the fairy tale. But when Bender pulls aside the curtain and shows you the dark swirling truth, you cannot look away. You feel - that rare and beautiful gift from a truly great book - woken up and unalone.

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Jessica Grant is the author of Come, Thou Tortoise, which won the 2009 First Novel Award.

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