Aimee Bender's new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, 304 pages, $25.95), is based on a neat little conceit: that little Rose Edelstein, aged almost 9 years, can taste the hollowness of her mother's life in a bite of dessert—that she can taste not only raw emotions but entire histories in each food she eats, unlayer the lives of farmers and line cooks, sense the pain and loneliness of an auto-milked cow in distant Wisconsin. Food becomes for Rose a torment, a rush of unwanted hurt: her father's distraction, her brother's rage. The impersonal metal tang of a factory food is a relief—Doritos are an undemanding friend, a respite from the constant incursions of other lives into her mouth.

Of course, the notion that food and emotion are bound together is familiar to any child eating Grandma's oatmeal cookies; what is new here is the mythic intensity of Rose's impressions. Rather than subject us to food novels' usual goopy sentimentality and sensuality-by-rote, Bender delves into the human and the imperfect, in self-consciously simple prose that always seems to hint beyond itself. In the titular cake, Rose finds that "in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness…."

The family life Bender creates is oddly stilted, uncommunicative; not only Rose but everyone in the family is deeply solitary and misunderstood (if any attempt at understanding is even made), held together by routine and pleasant fictions. No one seems to share anything at all. And so it is a terribly lonely bildungsroman for little Rosie as her years flip past toward adulthood. She plays board games with only herself, has friends only in passing mention or in awkward spurts. Whatever empathy Rose possesses is unwanted, and all her brother Joseph aims to do is disappear.

It is strange, then, that the tone of the book is so warm. It is a warmth proceeding not from the characters themselves but from an essential quality of Bender's voice. As an author, she is very likable even when one suspects the characters are propped up quite shakily and left still unknowable; that is, that they are pasted to her own personality's generous fabric, their qualities either hers or merely functional, their lives bereft of dimension. The joy that one feels in reading the book—as with many of Bender's stories—is almost heuristic; it is a sort of emotional forensics, a hunting of metaphors gone rogue in a world of men and girls. When you catch them, which happens often enough, the surprise can be bracing.


Aimee Bender reads from

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 7. Free.