Every time I pick up a book with a simplistic, comic-book cover, I do what most people do: I expect a simplistic story, one that won’t stick with me longer than it takes to read it. When the book turns out to be deep, with layers of meaning that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, I feel a sense of sadness for the author. She or he has put months or years into creating a literary work of art, only to have a publisher put a cover on it that will cause it to be picked up only by people looking for a quick beach read or something to pass time at the doctor’s office or on a plane. Those people will grow tired of it quickly because it’s not what they wanted, while people who might be looking for something more substantial won’t pick it up at all.
The cover of THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a flat, three-color rendition of a slice of chocolate-frosted yellow cake with a single birthday candle. I expected froth and recipes. But the novel is a daring story that gracefully traverses the area between fantasy and fiction, occasionally dipping into moments of horror all the more terrible because the settings are so ordinary. Basically, the story exposes a normal family that isn’t normal at all. A father who for a secret reason can’t bring himself to enter a hospital even when his wife is inside giving birth to his children, a wife who isn’t nearly as long-suffering and patient as she appears, a teenaged son who uses his genius to remove himself — literally — from life, and a young girl who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste the emotions of the cook in everything she eats. Sometimes she cannot bear to hold their despair on her tongue, but when she tries to confide her secret to the school nurse she’s suspected of being anorexic. Only she knows the secrets all the others hold, only she catches her brother in the act of disappearing.
THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a beautiful book. Don’t be put off by the cover. And if you read it and then find yourself halfway expecting to taste emotions in the next food you eat, maybe you will.