THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Craving love and connection

A girl has the power to ‘taste’ the hidden emotions of others

In this novel, young Rose Edelstein first discovers her unusual gift while eating a lemon cake baked by her mother. In this novel, young Rose Edelstein first discovers her unusual gift while eating a lemon cake baked by her mother. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)
By Steve Almond
June 6, 2010

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We are living in an era of unabashed food porn. Viewers can choose from a media smorgasbord — television channels, magazines, and websites — devoted to capturing the delicious intricacies of the perfect crème brûlée.

Aimee Bender’s inventive second novel represents something of an unintended rebuke to this cottage industry. “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’’ includes numerous lovely descriptions of food. But the book’s central preoccupation is a more elusive hunger — the existential pangs that plague those unable to connect emotionally with loved ones.

As in much of Bender’s works, the plot hinges on a crucial bit of fabulism. The night before her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into the cake prepared by her mother. “I could absolutely taste the chocolate . . .,’’ Rose observes, but “it seemed my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother . . . there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness.’’

This hollowness, of course, is precisely what her mother is feeling beneath her cheery exterior.

Rose’s peculiar ability to taste others’ emotions in her food quickly becomes a curse. Whereas most people seek solace in food, Rose finds only hidden layers of anxiety, rage, and sorrow.

In the hands of a writer less deft than Bender this conceit might have come off as gimmicky. But her prose is both convincing and elegant when it comes to Rose’s odd powers of perception.

“The chocolate chips were from a factory, so they had that same slight metallic, absent taste to them, and the butter had been pulled from cows in pens, so the richness was not as full,’’ she writes. “The eggs were tinged with a hint of far away and plastic. All of those parts hummed in the distance, and then the baker, who’d mixed the batter and formed the dough, was angry. A tight anger, in the cookie itself.’’

The most harrowing result of all is the unwanted knowledge she acquires about her family. Her older brother, Joseph, is a savant almost entirely cut off from the world. Her father is an inhibited figure who buries himself in work. And her mother’s domestic discontent quickly gives way to infidelity. Rose is left adrift.

Here’s how she describes watching TV with her dad: “It was like we were exchanging codes, on how to be a father and a daughter, like we’d read about it in a manual, translated from another language, and were doing our best with what we could understand.’’

But this passage highlights what was, for me, the novel’s one drawback. Bender is writing about people who are cut off from each other, and themselves. The inevitable result is a lack of emotional tension. Her characters mostly avoid conflict, or deep feelings of any sort.

Rose might be able to identify the emotions of those around her, but that’s not quite as satisfying as seeing them dramatized. Consider how Bender handles this description of her heroine’s dalliance with a high school classmate:

“A couple of times he and I made out. . . . We pushed our faces into each other. There was something rude and bruising about it, like I was mad at him and he was mad at me and we were having a fight with our lips, but somehow it all still felt pretty good. He tasted like sports. One afternoon, just as it was getting dark, he tucked a hair behind my ear and seemed ready to say something nice; I ducked out of his arms and told him I had to go.’’

The voice here is masterful, the prose mesmerizing. We are being made to see the familiar specter of adolescent lust in an entirely new way, a Bender trademark. And yet, as much as I believe that a girl like Rose would retreat in the face of such tenderness, I have to admit to being disappointed at the ease of her escape.

Likewise, her mother’s affair never has any discernible consequences on the marriage. Rose herself falls in love with a charismatic friend, who even gives her some cause to believe he might love her back. But this possibility yields little more than a familiar letdown. Even Joseph’s mysterious disappearance — a source of considerable suspense — never registers as a real human loss.

I admit that my disappointment here is a function of my own needs as a reader. But it’s also true that Bender is one of our finest prose stylists. She has constructed a novel with a deeply involving plot, one full of provocative ideas about how people learn to accept, and adapt to, their special aptitudes and sensitivities.

But she’s a writer capable of capturing more than this, by which I mean the painful complexities of love and loss that allow us to recognize the deepest parts of ourselves in our favorite fictional characters.

Steve Almond’s new book is “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.’’ He can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE By Aimee Bender

Doubleday, 292 pp., $25.95