Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Almost ten years ago, Maya Goldberg released Bee Season. The novel was celebrated and reviewed quite well. I spent a lot more time reading it than the thin binding should have required. I could not become involved in the main character. Goldberg wrote from the point of view of an adolescent girl. There was something in the voice, something other worldly and older, that didn't quite mesh with realism. The same can be said about Bender's Rose in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. These characters are too wise, too aware, too comfortable with their awkwardness. I can't relate to these unrecognizable characters.

In the case of Bender's novel, narrator is not the only complaint. In fact, I don't know where to begin. From time to time, Bender writes a beautiful sentence. There were passages I paused to congratulate her on the amazing structure of her prose. But, then I thought to myself... 'Do I do this with other authors? Or, is this so bad I have to find something positive?' And, sadly, the fact that I got so excited whenever Bender rose above mediocrity says way too much about how little is taking place.

Bender is a short story writer. This is not to say some short story writers can not succeed as novelists. But, this is to say Bender can not succeed as a novelist. Bender has taken a very interesting concept (a girl able to taste the emotion of the cook in the food) and stretched it until every piece is left haggard, exhausted, and rotting. I have never experienced a novel where the author so clearly ran out of idea and purpose before the novel was half over.

I pushed myself through the entire novel because I was a little curious about Rose's brother. A young man able to just disappear. What was Bender getting at? Where was this character headed? Then, Rose encounters him turning into a chair. At first, I thought this was a hallucinatory passage. I was confused by this sudden turn of... um, uh... magical realism? Pure fantasy? Over the top circus tricks? But, by the novels end, we are told the brother is able to transform into objects. And, when he goes missing one final time, forever, in the end... he has completed his transformation from this world. He will remain a chair. What the fuck?

I tried to make sense of these characters. Of their powers. Of their control and lack of control. Of the mother, father, grandmother... all three lost souls barely taking up enough space or pages to make them all that interesting.

I hardly ever give away endings in my reviews. But, I want so badly for no one to waste their time on this novel that I had to share more than usual.


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