The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
  • March 17, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Aimee Bender

    2The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

    Amy Greene

  • Judged by

    Catherine George


I wanted this match to be an epic battle. A clash of the titans. Beowulf wrestling Grendel, Holmes head-to-head with Moriarty, Dinocroc v. Supergator. And it could’ve been a doozy: I love family dramas with a sprinkle (or dollop) of the fantastic, and that happens to be a basic outline of both these books. But in reading I soon realized I didn’t love either of these books. (Catch me in a bad mood and I might say I didn’t even like either of these books.) Because of that, this decision is less wild brawl and more cold, novelistic mathematics.

Let’s start adding with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. We’ve got a quirky, modern speculative fiction concept: When Rose eats food, she tastes the emotions of the cook. Since her mother is filled with a hollow, grasping need to be loved, this makes family dinners a tad uncomfortable for her. She discovers this talent days before her ninth birthday; in classic coming-of-age style, the book takes us from there through to her early twenties, tracking the impact that talent has on the life of an otherwise mundane young woman growing up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. That impact ranges from the silly (she grows to love processed foods—watch for the paean to Doritos) to the life changing (she discovers a family member’s secret in a bite of roast beef). Along the way she realizes that she isn’t the only family member with a fantastic talent, a fact that drives the later parts of the plot.

Voice in novels is a big deal to me, and Rose’s might best be described as natural, unobtrusive. She falters when the book runs up against the restrictions of the first person POV, however. Every time Rose begins to detail her parents’ innermost feelings, I lurched out of the narrative. When she says, “At the start of their courtship, Dad had thought Mom’s lostness was a sign of her spontaneity,” I wondered, How does she know that? It’s in these moments the style strays from clean and modern into a swampy attempt at the poetic: “My father usually agreed to her requests, because stamped in his two-footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves.”

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Otherwise, this is a polished piece of work: crisp pacing, cleanly drawn characters, sharp dialogue, especially scenes where the family utterly fails to communicate while talking around the dinner table. The emotionally clueless father, reclusive failed-genius brother, and perpetually needy mother all pop off the page in these moments. The romance subplot, thankfully, avoids taking the clichéd road. There are also some great scenes in there, like the moment when Rose uses her talent during a “food-tasting” (as opposed to a wine-tasting) at a fancy French restaurant. “The parsley farmer is a jerk,” she says, to agreement from the chef.

So then why didn’t it grab me? Because, hiding under that magic gloss, the book is a straightforward novel of the suburban family. Rose’s gift allows her a high level of insight into her family, and Bender uses that as a wedge to explore their internal workings. For a reader like me, this was a letdown. Every flashback to Rose’s parents’ courtship, every time the momentum of her battle with her strange talent shifted to another story about her brother as a little boy, I started tapping my fingers against the page, impatient. Get back to the good stuff, to the meat, the magic. I drifted away from caring what happened to the family or the fantastic. The polished style began to feel sterile. I wanted something raw, risky, exposed to pull me in emotionally, for Rose herself to take a real step on her journey rather than catalogue the steps taken by her family. Despite the fact that she’s the narrator, and that her talent provides the narrative hook, Rose herself remains a cipher who loses out, plot-wise, to her brother and mother. I expected a magical coming-of-age story and got a story where magic got sidelined and our heroine never quite came of age.

Now, the tally for Bloodroot. Here we have six first-person narrators, each of them telling part of the story of Myra Lamb, born into a supposedly cursed family living on Bloodroot Mountain in the Appalachians. The style here harkens to an oral storytelling tradition, using a sort of direct address that wouldn’t be out of place around a campfire. This sometimes adds authenticity but too often mires the story in exposition. Additionally, only one of the six voices—Byrdie, Myra’s grandmother, with her countrified twang—is particularly distinct: “It’s a wonder Macon took to me, but he wasn’t no looker hisself. Had a puckered face and scraggly whiskers and a brown birthmark over his eye shaped like an island off the globe I seen at the Cochrans’ house.” The others—who range across generations and personality traits—are a touch more straightforward stylistically but tend to blur together. Here’s Doug, Myra’s childhood sweetheart, reminiscing: “I sat in her empty spot with my forehead pressed against the window, mailboxes and ditches racing by in a blur… I was cursed to have known Myra, more cursed to have loved her like I did.” And here’s Laura, a young girl, again telling us how she felt about Myra: “When she quit paying attention to us, I missed her bad… I still loved her, though. I know Johnny loved her, too.” That habit—of naming emotions, rather than displaying them—is a universal one among these six.

The plot centers on an abusive relationship between Myra and a man named John Odom, and the first four narratives spend so long tiptoeing around the mystery at the end of that relationship that I had to restrain myself from flipping ahead to find out what in the heck Myra had done already. That was my central issue with Bloodroot: It buried its best bits six feet under and forced the reader to dig to find them. When Myra finally gets to tell her own story, the plot crackles to life and builds to the stark climax that was promised for so long, but getting there is a long, slow slog.

The book also sags under the weight of its own mythology. It started out by telling me things about Myra, about how she was special, magical, wild, cursed. Things about an aptitude for the magical, a witchiness, that lay in the family. But when I looked at what was being shown, I couldn’t see a reflection of what I was being told. Myra’s actually a strong character, worth meeting, but magic and wild she’s not, and the ongoing suggestion that she is weakens the impact of her story.

So. Bloodroot, a story that might’ve caught me if it hadn’t been so obscured by its own words, versus Particular Sadness, a fine example of craft that just didn’t move me. Who wins? In the end, Particular Sadness chalked up a bunch of extra points for technical merit, and today, that’s all it needed to move forward.

TMN Reader Judge Contest Winner Catherine George was born and raised in British Columbia, where she first got started with books when her mother took a job at the local library and assigned the book stacks to be her babysitter. She graduated with a BFA in Creative Writing in 2006 and has been struggling to figure out what to do with it ever since. In 2009, she quit a job as a reporter to spend a year writing the Great Canadian Novel. Result: one 400-page clunker of a first draft and one kernel of something better. Despite currently being a law student, she continues to believe she’ll finish the novel. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None that I know of.”