(In 2012 I arranged with a site to review the books up for the Fantasy Clarke. Plans changed and the coverage got scrapped, but I still have the reviews, so I’ll put them up.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a coming of age narrative with fantastic elements. The central character, a young girl called Rose, gains the ability to taste the origins of the food she eats, and, in particular, the emotional state of the cook. To a degree, this functions as a metaphor for her perhaps over-developed ‘mundane’ sense of empathy, and provides us with a window into the emotional lives of her troubled mother, staid father, and enigmatic brother Joseph, all of whom have secrets of their own.
The writing isn’t experimental. It doesn’t come with bells and whistles. It’s not a particularly excellent example of relatively straightforward prose, studded with transcendently true and affecting moments. There’s a tendency to commend any book that’s not poorly written for its good prose, but that collapses the substantial middle ground occupied by books with pleasantly decent writing, such as Lemon Cake. The only real issue I have with the novel on this score is that Bender’s choice to omit quotation marks in a dialogue-heavy book doesn’t give the writing a satisfying immediacy, or stretch the dialogue into the prose in an enriching way. It just grates a bit. Typographical conventions should only be abandoned to achieve particular, generative effects.
The novel is competent. It uses workmanlike prose to briskly evoke quite good characters, a strong setting and atmosphere, and a network of underlying tensions. It constructs promising conflicts between its characters premised on their fundamentally different natures. But the novel is also frustrating and unsatisfying. Despite its fertile set-up, remarkably little happens in Lemon Cake’s three-hundred pages. The slow pace might be used to unfold characters and relationships of great depth and interest, but the novel’s world is strangely static, and its characters undergo few dynamic changes. Reading it feels like being stuck renting a room from the Prufrock family. In a story so premised around emotion, the book feels sucked clean of it. Maybe life is like this for many people: small existences with sad families, few friends, inadequate and listless responses to problems, little exterior direction or interest, no particularly compelling inner life. Points for a certain flat middle class realism. But is anything in the novel stageworthy? In a story where no one cares passionately about anything, does anything matter?
The setting is both ungrounded and unhelpfully precise. A specific sense of place–restaurants and streets in LA, university options in California–juxtaposes strangely with the timelessness of the novel. It’s difficult to tell when the book’s set. It could be almost any time in the last several decades. A telephone booth is described as outdated, but no one has a cell phone. Joseph is a remote science genius who disdains touch and has trouble relating to people, and despite a surfeit of discussion about why he is the way he is, no one mentions the possibility that he might fall within the autism spectrum. It feels as though Rose’s entire child- and young adulthood takes place, both emotionally for the characters and in terms of the broader setting, in the same vague year, rather than over the course of more than a decade. This arrested quality is especially strange as bildungsromans (stories of a protagonist’s journey into adulthood) often, by their nature, deeply engage with concepts of change and time.
In the same vein, Rose’s coping strategies a month after her problem arises/her fantastic ability presents itself are very similar to her coping strategies over a decade later. A serious food aversion amounting to a disability might prompt one to explore a raw food diet, especially in LA, home of wacky dietary possibility, just to cut down on the amount of information overload one’s subjected to. Yet Rose miserably masticates her mom’s cooking and awaits the occasional salvation of a Dorito, for years.
No one in the book responds to the story’s fantastic elements with anything other than a sort of dreamy incompetence. Effectuality is said to be Rose’s father’s defining characteristic, yet he bumbles along with the rest of them. No one follows up on things. If your parent has a problem, and you feel you also have the same problem, then surely you could extrapolate that this apparently familial issue might well affect your own children. Yet the characters, despite caring about each other, never discuss this, save for one short conversation near the book’s end that doesn’t greatly affect the narrative. The scientifically-minded characters never seek to explore the cause of Rose’s abnormal experience, nor does Rose herself. Obviously these sorts of empirical processes aren’t really at home in a magic realist text, and they might be superfluous to, or lessen the metaphorical power of, the character’s strange abilities. But again, the fantastic juxtaposition with mundane, real-world elements, homework and marital problems, makes the absence of realistic coping mechanisms strange, and makes characters who don’t chafe at their situations or adapt to them less believable.
The fantastic elements–intriguing in their potential–don’t really go anywhere or mean anything. We have a protagonist who can taste the feelings that have gone into making food, but the conceit isn’t pressed. The problem always remains About Rose. Given the unsavory agribusiness industry and the involvement of animals in the food Rose eats, Lemon Cake could easily be Fast Food Nation: the Novel, and/or a 300 page advertisement for PETA. I don’t know that it should be, but sidelining those issues entirely seems a glaring omission.
Furthermore, if Rose’s problem and ability is one of empathy (for her family, if not for cows and poor people), we don’t learn anything fresh and interesting about empathy’s burdens via this atypical means of accessing them. If Joseph’s problem is about, somewhat similarly, feeling assaulted by the world, his issues are dealt with too coyly, and at too much distance, to really have the chance to function as a means for communicating with the reader. It’s significant that Joseph presents as possibly-autistic in a world that doesn’t appear to have autism, and Rose has debilitating food aversions in a world without eating disorders, celiacs, etc. What does it mean to be a novel about empathy with no strong sense of the social world beyond the Family Romance? Is there, embedded in that, a quite politicized curtailing of empathy, despite the character’s relationship with food production automatically tying her into large, stratified socioeconomic networks?
At one point Rose tells her father a fabricated story about one of her classmates. He responds by saying “I know you’re trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what it is. Okay? I don’t think like that. What are you trying to tell me?” (pg. 173) I feel similarly about the entire novel, except I don’t think it’s a problem of not being willing or able to think in the fluid, associative ways magical realism and urban fantasy demand. I’m game, but ultimately, Lemon Cake isn’t.