The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (With Her Recipe)

You’d think a book with such a bright cover, with such a sweet picture of a lemon cake with chocolate frosting, would be a book about something light. Something easy to swallow. Something palatable.
But it’s about sorrows almost too heavy to bear, and how is it, exactly, that we manage to cope with day to day life at all?
They say there is a grain of truth in every jest, and I feel the same about magical realism. That element may sound fantastic, unbelievable, impossible, but the more I read books with magical realism in them (Kafka On The Shore, Of Bees and Mist), the more I discover that they contain more truth than fantasy. And so it is with our heroine, who can taste what people are feeling when she eats what they’ve prepared.
Can’t we taste more than the flavors? When we concentrate on the person, on the nuances and unsaid parts, we can often find an element of sadness. Anger. Joy or hope. (Even the psalmist said, “Taste the Lord and see that He is good.” Psalm 34:8)
In the shadow of the slice of cake is a girl. Or, is it her mother? Or, is it a couple standing so closely together you can’t even tell them apart? It is, perhaps, a brother and a sister who have each found their own way to live in this all too painful world.
This was a profoundly moving book. I will be thinking about it for a long, long time.
Find other reviews from Fizzy Thoughts,  Bookfan, S. Krishna’s Books, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, Col Reads, New Century Reading, Estella’s Revenge. If you reviewed it, let me know so I can add you to the links.
Quotes particularly striking to me:
“Truth was, it was hard to see George eat those cookie halves without hesitation. Without tasting even a speck of the hurry in Janet’s oatmeal, which was so rushed it was like eating the calendar of an executive, or without catching a glimpse of the punching bag tucked beside every chocolate chip. I was so jealous, already, of everyone else’s mouth.” (p. 64-5)
“There’s a kind of show a kid can do, for a parent-a show of pain, to try to announce something, and in my crying, in the desperate, blabbering, awful mouth-clawing, I had hoped to get something across. Had it come across, any of it? Nope.” (p. 95)
 “Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.” (p. 117)
 “To see someone you love, in a bad setting, is one of the great barometers of gratitude.” (p. 201)
Finally, here is Aimee Bender’s lemon cake which I made tonight:

Lemon Cake (Cake au citron)
10 tablespoons butter, plus a little extra for greasing the pan
2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for flouring the greased pan
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus 1 heaping tablespoon if you decide to make syrup
Grated zest of 1 organic lemon
3 large eggs
½ cup milk, warmed in a small saucepan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)

1. Dice the butter and melt it in the microwave at low power.

 2. Use a pastry brush to grease the bottom and sides of a 10-inch round cake pan with butter. Sprinkle the pan with flour, turn it all around to spread the flour evenly, and tap out any excess.

 3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

 4. Sift the sugar into a bowl. Add the lemon zest. Mix the sugar and zest well with your fingers, then whisk in the eggs. When the eggs and sugar are thoroughly combined, whisk in the melted butter and warm milk. Add the flour and baking powder, whisking constantly throughout.

 5. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 8 minutes. Lower the heat to 300°F and cook about 40 minutes more. The cake is finished when the blade of a knife inserted in its center comes out dry.

 6. Remove the finished cake from the oven, unmold it onto a cooling rack, and let cool.

 7. Just after cooking you can, if you like, use a pastry brush to coat the cake with syrup. Just boil 4 tablespoons water with 1 heaping tablespoon confectioners’ sugar for a couple of minutes. Allow it to cool, then stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Brush the syrup on the still-warm cake.

 Yield: 6 to 8 servings

 Thanks to The BookClub Cookbook for giving us this treat!