A Book That Brings Sadness To Lemon Cake

On the face of it, the Edelsteins appear to be a stereotypical middle-class family, with little Rose about to turn nine. Her birthday cake changes everything as family secrets begin to bubble to the surface. Host Liane Hansen talks to author Aimee Bender about her new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

On the face of it, the Edelsteins appear to be a stereotypical middle-class nuclear family. Dad is a lawyer. Mom is involved with various projects outside the home. Son, Joseph, is a sullen teen with a consuming interest in metaphysics. Sister, Rose, is about to turn nine. Her birthday cake changes everything and family secrets begin to bubble to the surface.

These characters have been created by Aimee Bender in a new novel called "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake." She's in our studio at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Ms. AIMEE BENDER (Author, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake"): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Rose's mom bakes a lemon cake with chocolate frosting. It's the night before Rose's ninth birthday. What happens when Rose bites into it?

Ms. BENDER: Well, she has this sensation in the cake which she's not sure what to do with because it tastes like a very good tasting cake, but there are these kind of - there's like an emptiness or a hollowness in the cake that really unsettles her and that she kind of associates with her mom but she's not sure why.

HANSEN: Hmm. So she's almost, she's tasting someone's feelings, really.

Ms. BENDER: Exactly. She finds out basically that she is tasting feelings in the cake but often feelings that people aren't aware that they're feeling. So they're kind of baked into the cake unknowingly and then she kind of takes them in.

HANSEN: Or secrets that they're keeping.

Ms. BENDER: Right.

HANSEN: Right.

Ms. BENDER: Secrets that they're keeping.

HANSEN: She is also unable to eat some toast her brother Joseph makes. What does she taste when she gets something from her brother?

Ms. BENDER: I mean, it almost, to her the toast tastes like it's closing in on itself. Like almost like a sea anemone or something that is just - yeah, that feeling of an inward motion - something inedible. She can't actually - she has to spit it out, she can't even swallow the toast.

HANSEN: Right. Joseph is a loner all of his life. All he wants to do is be alone. And he's completely focused on this quote-unquote, "work," he is doing which involves grass and the cosmos and all of it.

I read a review of the book and it suggested that maybe this character had either agoraphobia or Asperger's Syndrome. Did you consider that when you were writing the character?

Ms. BENDER: You know, it's interesting because I dont - I mean I can see both of those things fitting the character and a couple other people have had other ideas about him that kind of fit as well. And I think there's just something I guess I'm trying to describe about him. And then I'm perfectly happy for people to come in and then kind of diagnose him, but I didnt want to diagnose him. And I kind of felt like that was important.

HANSEN: Yes. And you can't project too much of that, you know, trying to put him in a category because it's really not until the end of the book that you figure out what's going on with him and I can't give it away.

Ms. BENDER: Yeah. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Let me get back to Rose, though.

Ms. BENDER: Okay. Okay.

HANSEN: Does she get feelings with everything she eats?

Ms. BENDER: Well, the thing - the distinction that she discovers, because any food that's made by a person is loaded. And it's either loaded with these secrets or these feelings that that person is not aware of or, you know, sometimes good feelings, too.

But the only food she can eat without worry about encountering something unknown in at person is processed food because processed food is made in factories and its usually made by machines that dont have feelings. So a bag of Doritos for her is a kind of enormous relief from this onslaught that she gets with every other meal.

HANSEN: So she essentially survives by eating processed food.

Ms. BENDER: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

HANSEN: But she begins to be able to know what factory it was made in, you know, what kind of factory it was made in. I mean she really starts to be able to know so much about where a particular, you know, food came from as she grows older in this book.

Ms. BENDER: Yeah. It's almost like the power of someone's feelings is so overpowering that the distraction of trying to learn about the details of other elements of the food gives her also another out. So it's almost like she's able to, you know, learn about factories and learn about the transportation of food and that kind of can get her mind off of this person is, you know, deeply sad or here's a person who's full of anger, whatever feeling she's encountering.

HANSEN: Yeah. And it's horrible when she's nine and she doesnt know what's happening to her and they take her to the emergency room and she wants them to take her mouth off.

Ms. BENDER: Yeah. Yeah.

HANSEN: But that can't happen.

Ms. BENDER: Right.

HANSEN: But she survives.

Ms. BENDER: She does. I mean, ultimately she does. It's I guess my hope that there's a survival but with the complexity that it's something she's trying to figure out but she's pointed in a good direction.

HANSEN: Right. Im speaking with Aimee Bender, author of the new novel, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake." You also wrote earlier, I mean youve been a successful author. "Willful Creatures" is a book of yours, "An Invisible Sign of My Own," "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" are yours. How did this - writing this compare to your earlier work?

Ms. BENDER: You know, every book is a little different. And I - this is my second novel, though I've had some kind of failed attempts at novels before I wrote this one. And people have said, well, once you write your first novel, you know, the second novel you kind of know the ropes. And I thought, okay, I'm going to know the ropes. And then I completely didnt know the ropes because, you know, the second time around it turns out they're not ropes. You know, its like a whole different mechanism.

And so, I think there was something about writing this book that did feel a little different though, each book feels different. But maybe, I think fairytales have been a huge influence in past books. And although this story has magical elements, they feel a little bit less fairytale based in some way, or there was something about language that felt a little different. Like, the scenes were longer than maybe scenes are in short stories or even in my first book, maybe. I mean, there's some long scenes in that too. But...

HANSEN: You dont use quotation marks when youre writing dialogue.

Ms. BENDER: Yeah, I often dont and I dont in this book. Kind of aesthetic choice in certain way because I like how it looks, but it also feels like that line between her internal and external world is a little blurry, which I think is kind of her deal.

HANSEN: Yeah. Did you base Rose on anyone you knew or a combination of people you know?

Ms. BENDER: Oh, probably a combination of many people, certainly elements of myself, but also elements of friends and family. I can sort of see pieces of dialogue or gestures that came from friends or family or me. So, I think every character ends up being some kind of mix like that.

HANSEN: Sure. Sure. But, you know, after all, youre writing about a girl who's nine. Youve been nine. You know what it's like to be the last one picked at...

Ms. BENDER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: ...you know, dodge ball.

Ms. BENDER: True.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And, you know, and then that first love that comes when, you know, Rose thinks she's in love with Joseph's best friend. And then, you follow her on, you know, up into her young adulthood, so...

Ms. BENDER: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. BENDER: But it can't be all about you.

Ms. BENDER: No, no, and it's not. It's always, I think because she's an invented character, then its like there's just that soup of wherever the writing comes from. And then the character kind of congealed out of that soup and so she's a little bit of a lot of people.

HANSEN: Of course, the metaphor has to be soup, right?

Ms. BENDER: Right. Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENDER: Can't help it.

HANSEN: Can't help it. Not with a food book.

Ms. BENDER: Not intentionally either.

HANSEN: Aimee Bender's new novel, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" has just been published and she spoke to us from NPR West. Thank you so much.

Ms. BENDER: Thank you for having me.

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