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Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Bender)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake 
Aimee Bender, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385501125


Summary 
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake.

She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. It is heartbreaking and funny, wise and sad. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—June 28, 1969
Where—N/A
Education—B.A., University of California, San Diego;
   M.F.A., University of California, Irvine.
Awards—2 Pushcart Prizes
Currently—lives in Los Angeles


Aimee Bender is an American novelist and short story writer known for her surreal plots and characters.

Bender received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at San Diego, and a Master of Fine Arts from the distinguished creative writing MFA program at University of California at Irvine. While at UCI she studied with Judith Grossman and Geoffrey Wolff. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California and heads a class in surrealist writing at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

She has named Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Anne Sexton as influences on her writing. A native of Los Angeles, Bender is a close friend of fellow UCI alumni Alice Sebold.

Her first book was The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of short stories, published in 1998. The book was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and spent seven weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own was published in 2000, and was named as an L.A. Times pick of the year.

In 2005 she published another collection of short stories, Willful Creatures, which was nominated by The Believer magazine, owned by McSweeney's, as one of the best books of the year. Her novella "The Third Elevator" was published in 2009 by Madras Press.

Bender has received two Pushcart Prizes, and was nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2005. In 2009 Bender became the sitting judge for the Flatmancrooked Writing Prize, a writing award from Flatmancrooked Publishing for new short fiction. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Bender is sparing with the pixie dust...what really interests her is the sympathy Rose feels for her family, shown in a series of small, delicate scenes that convey the loneliness of these lives…the most moving section comes in the latter half as Rose grows more aware of her brother's troubles.... It's here, in a climactic scene that's creepy and delicate, that the real magic of Bender's writing takes place, a tribute to the struggles of people who feel the world too much.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


The fairy-tale elements in her writing, far from seeming outlandish, highlight the everyday nature of her characters' flaws and struggles. In Ms. Bender's stories and novels, relationships and mundane activities take on mythic qualities.
Wall Street Journal


Hemingway on an acid trip; her choices are twisted, both ethereal and surprisingly weighty.... Terrifyingly lovely
Los Angeles Times


Haunting.... Bender's prose delivers electric shocks...rendering the world in fresh, unexpected jolts. Moving, fanciful and gorgeously strange.
People


[T]his novel seems more informed by a kind of magical realism that struggles with transformation and sometimes—fleetingly—succeeds, as in the case of the novel’s vividly realized Los Angeles setting. But the effect soon fades, and the reader is left only with a lingering feeling of emptiness and the realization that sadness tastes a lot like bitterness. —Michael Cart
Booklist


Taking her very personal brand of pessimistic magical realism to new heights (or depths), Bender’s second novel (following An Invisible Sign of My Own) careens splendidly through an obstacle course of pathological, fantastical neuroses. Bender’s narrator is young, needy Rose Edelstein, who can literally taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food, giving her unwanted insight into other people’s secret emotional lives—including her mother’s, whose lemon cake betrays a deep dissatisfaction. Rose’s father and brother also possess odd gifts, the implications of which Bender explores with a loving and detailed eye while following Rose from third grade through adulthood. Bender has been called a fabulist, but emerges as more a spelunker of the human soul; carefully burrowing through her characters’ layered disorders and abilities, Bender plumbs an emotionally crippled family with power and authenticity. Though Rose’s gift can seem superfluous at times, and Bender’s gustative insights don’t have the sensual potency readers might crave, this coming-of-age story makes a bittersweet dish, brimming with a zesty, beguiling talent.
Publishers Weekly


Rose Edelstein is nearly nine when she first tastes her mother's feelings baked into a slice of birthday cake. Her "mouth was filling up with the taste of smallness…of upset." Meals become an agony for Rose, and she subsists on junk food from the school vending machine. When her mother begins an affair, Rose can taste that, too. Her brilliant older brother, Joseph, seems to have some type of autism spectrum disorder, though it is never named. Rose grows up and manages what she now considers her food skill, discerning not only the city of production but also the personality and temperament of the growers and pickers. She also draws closer to her father, finally understanding his prepossessions. This is an unusual family, even by California standards. Verdict: Bender deconstructs one of our most pleasurable activities, eating, and gives it a whole new flavor. She smooths out the lumps and grittiness of life to reveal its zest. Highly recommended for readers with sophisticated palates. —Bette-Lee Fox
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
1. Rose goes through life feeling people’s emotions through their food.  Many eat to feel happy and comforted.  Does this extreme sensory experience bring any happiness to Rose or only sadness? 

2. What does Rose mean when she says her dad always seemed like a guest to her? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?

3. “Mom's smiles were so full of feeling that people leaned back a little when she greeted them. It was hard to know just how much was being offered.”  What does Rose mean  and how does this trait affect the mother’s relationships?

4. Why do you think the dad like medical dramas but hate hospitals?

5. Rose says, “Mom loved my brother more.  Not that she didn’t love me-- I felt the wash of her love everyday, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water.  I was her darling daughter; Joseph was her it.”  Do you think Rose is right in her estimation and why do you think the mother might feel this way?

6. What does the grandmother suggest when she tells Rose “you don’t even know me, How can you love me?”  How has the grandmother’s relationship with Rose’s own mother affected the family dynamic?

7. What is Joseph trying to accomplish by drawing a ‘perfect’ circle when it, by very definition, is impossible? How does George’s idea to create wallpaper out of the imperfections affect him? How does validation and affection through art recur in the novel and what does it signify?

8. Why does George suddenly conclude Rose’s gift isn’t really a problem and stops investigating it?

9. What is the significance of the mother’s commitment to carpentry (compared to other, short-lived hobbies)? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?

10. What is the impact of Rose's discovery about her father's skills?  Did this change the way you see the father?

11. Joseph is described as a desert and geode while Rose is a rainforest and sea glass. Discuss the implications.

12. Why does Rose want to keep the thread-bare footstool of her parents’ courtship instead of having her mother make her a new one?

13. Are the family dinners—with Joseph reading, the dad eating, Rose silently trying to survive the meal and the mom talking non-stop—emblematic of the family dynamic? How has it evolved over the years?

14. How did you experience the scene in Joseph's room, when Rose goes to see him?  What did that experience mean to Rose? Is there any significance to Joseph choosing a card table chair?

15. What does the last image about the trees have to do with this family?  How do you interpret the last line of the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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