Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The premise of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is so clever and surreal that it’s hard not to be taken in. A girl, tasting the lemon cake her mother has baked for her ninth birthday, tastes not just the cake but her mother’s emotions. She can barely choke the cake down. After this, she can taste emotions in everything she eats. She stands around the school cafeteria hoping that she’ll be able to pick up food from the lunch lady who adds to her food a solid sort of sadness, becomes a connoisseur of the vending machine, and one day ends up in the emergency room because she is trying to remove her mouth from her face.

Although the premise is presented to the reader with no real explanation, Rose realizes early on that she can’t tell anyone what she’s tasting in food. There is, really, an entire world in each bite that Rose takes, and from the first bite of that lemon cake, the blessing and misfortune of Rose’s gift are clear.

[…] as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that 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, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but 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. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.

What is so horrifying for Rose in that bite of cake is the way her mother seems to be not entirely there – that Rose can taste not just that her mother is sad, but that she isn’t fully present in her life. At eight years old, though, Rose can barely understand what is happening when she eats food, let alone find a way to understanding her mother’s emotions. Although she knows even the most minor details and disruptions of the lives of those around her, Rose keeps her gift – or curse, depending on your view – a secret, only telling her brother and his friend George. Bender’s writing here, with George conducting “experiments” on Rose to test what emotions she can taste, and how accurately she can describe the people making her food, is entertaining but short-lived. George is a figure throughout the novel, though often in the background, but his interest in Rose’s abilities die off, along with the experiments and any hope Rose had of coming to understand herself.

The weakness to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is this habit of Bender’s, of dropping details and stories into the novel but not following through. The text feels unbalanced particularly near its close, when Rose is drawn into her brother’s life and his own hidden talents. Hints about the lives of Rose’s family members are tossed to the reader in rapid succession, suggesting that Rose is not so alone as she’s long felt; but Bender never fully explores the lives of Rose’s family members and what their stories mean in relation to hers. The end of the novel is so sudden that it’s hard not to flip through the final pages, searching for something more than is given us; but there’s only a fading away of Rose’s story, not a conclusion to it.

When Bender’s writing is good, though, it’s very good, almost addictive. By the time the novel ends, Rose’s story has shifted into a traditional coming-of-age story, with her ability to taste emotions seeming not so different from someone else’s talent for writing, or painting, or business. Earlier in the novel, though, Bender does an extraordinary job of parsing Rose’s emotions and her unwillingness to see what is forced before her. Others, like George or a friend she has in high school, might view her talents with admiration, but for Rose they’re more of a curse.

I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. 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.

Watching Rose grow, and the way she matures – sometimes earlier than she should, thanks to everything she has had to learn, so unwillingly – is fun reading. Bender’s novel may not remake the coming-of-age story, but it does fit itself into its strictures in new and sometimes exciting ways.


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Reviews: Something Borrowed and Something Blue

Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and Something Blue provide an interesting contrast when it comes to the question of what makes a piece of chick lit a success. In both novels the narrators’ voices are remarkably fresh; both are driven more by the interior than by external events; and both take as their subjects not just the search for love, but the attempt to define and maintain female friendships.

Something Borrowed, Giffin’s first book, is the better of the two. The novel opens with a surprise 30th birthday party for a Manhattan lawyer, Rachel, thrown by her long-term best friend, Darcy. Darcy is engaged to a friend of Rachel’s from law school, Dex, and it is nearly inevitable that Rachel and Dex should end up carrying out an affair behind Darcy’s self-absorbed back. Giffin’s decision to push the reader to sympathize with Rachel, a woman cheating with her best friend’s fiance, is a unique one, and works because the subject of the novel is not just this affair, but also how Rachel has for years been defined and constrained by her friendship with Darcy. It’s possible – and not just possible, but appealing – to sympathize with Rachel because: (1) she is guilt-ridden over her affair with Dex and tries, a couple of times, to end it (I mean, these are weak attempts, but still); (2) Darcy is, to put it bluntly, a self-centered bitch, the sort of woman who is always the best-looking person in the room, knows it, and uses it to her advantage; (3) for most of the novel it seems that Dex is going to wimp out and marry Darcy even though he seems not to really love her, because it is the “right” thing to do.

And, it works! The novel works! It is a fun read, one of those books you’ll read in a day while sitting in a bus or on a beach. The risks Giffin takes in pushing us to identify with the woman who would usually be cast as the villain in such a novel makes this story fresh, and Rachel and Dex become characters we sympathize with almost against our will. Moreover, unlike so many women we see in chick lit and romantic comedies, Rachel has a real job. You know, she goes to work every day, the thought of her boss alternately sickens and terrifies her, and she lives in a crummy studio apartment instead of Carrie Bradshaw-like digs. Rachel reads like a real woman, with her sympathetic presentation aided by comparison to Darcy’s patently unrealistic and blessed life.

In the follow-up novel, Something Blue, Giffin follows a recently impregnated Darcy around Manhattan in the wake of her loss of fiance and best friend. Unlike Rachel, Darcy’s a hard woman to sympathize with – not least because one way Giffin made Rachel relatable in the previous book was by making Darcy so unrelatable. After arriving in New York and working at a bar for a few weeks, she landed a cushy job in PR – a job she won because of her looks. She views her unplanned pregnancy with one of Dex’s college friends as a sort of glamorous story that can overshadow the collapse of her seven-year relationship and the cancellation of her wedding, and manipulates Dex’s friend into a relationship he doesn’t want.

Giffin doesn’t have a real strength for the unexpected, but that’s not what we’re coming to Something Blue for. Darcy is such an impossible character that we know, from the beginning, that redemption is in store for her. When she travels to London to visit Ethan, her first boyfriend (in the fifth grade) and one of Rachel’s best friends, loaded down with countless bags and dreams about the British husband she’s going to nab while abroad, there’s little question that things won’t go as she expects, that her endless shopping sprees will at some point come to a halt. Giffin does an admirable job maintaining Darcy’s voice even as her character changes, drastically, but the story as a whole is hackneyed. Whatever changes Darcy makes while she’s in London, whoever influences her life while she’s there, she ultimately owes all her self-improvement to her pregnancy, to being forced to truly care for another life.

That said, Something Blue offers pleasurable moments, if not as many as its predecessor. Giffin has a skill for exploring her characters’ interior lives, and for moving the plot along although most of the action is taking place in the form of a long-running, internal debate. Her generally clean prose has its false steps, as when one character is described as having “curly, full lips.” On the whole, though, these books are great examples of what can be done within the confines of the chick lit genre. Giffin’s women, true, end up with men at the end of both novels, but they have worries other than men, and their attempts to change and better understand themselves are as much focused on their interior lives and self-development as on the men around them.


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Review: Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall

Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an unabashedly moral book, all the better for the ways its author never attempts to hide or brush over its moral code. The novel is a sort of Groundhog Day high school story, with its narrator, Sam, living the same day again and again. At the end of that day she dies in a car accident, after leaving a party with her friends. The novel tracks her as she runs through the gauntlet of emotions (despair, anger, sorrow, acceptance) about what seems to be her inevitable fate as she wakes up, again and again, on Friday, February 12th. While Oliver overdoes certain images, coming back time and again to the idea of the “butterfly effect”, her ability to revisit and subtly (or significantly) change moments that Sam and the reader have already lived is remarkable.

Before I Fall opens with the car ride that ends with Sam’s death. Sam’s beyond-the-grave narrative voice appears throughout the novel, suggesting that there’s a limit to what Sam can change as she relives that Friday, though it’s hard to suppress the desire to see her wake up on Saturday the 13th, having somehow found a way out of the loop of time she’s been trapped in. She reveals herself early on to be a classic mean girl, albeit one who’s keenly aware of the ways in which she and her friends – in which everyone, really – works to blend in. Right down to the bagels they eat and the way they take their coffee, Sam’s friends strive for a sameness. Oliver seems to take some pleasure in highlighting the ridiculous nature of high school’s delineations between what’s cool and not cool, setting out a hierarchy even for lunch meats.

A few characters outside of Sam’s social circle make their appearances in each telling of the day. Sam realizes, a few days in, that these people are of more importance to her and her story than she would have thought on the first day she died. There’s Anna, a girl who for months has been sleeping with a boy dating a girl saving herself for marriage, but who long before that was marked as a slut and white trash by Lindsay, one of Sam’s best friends. Painfully, Sam comes to realize that to Lindsay that designation doesn’t mean anything, writing of the “AC=WT” (Anna Cartullo=White Trash) grafitti markered in all the girl’s bathrooms, “I’m pretty sure Lindsay wrote it on a whim – four measly letters, stupid, meaningless – probably to test out a new marker and see how much ink it had. It would have been better, almost, if she’d meant it. It would be better if she really hated Anna. Because it matters. It has mattered.”

Then there’s Juliet Sykes, labeled “psycho” – again by Lindsay. It’s Juliet who is at center of the story, a sort of vision of what Sam herself might have been if, in the seventh grade, she hadn’t been plucked out of obscurity by Lindsay, the same girl who for years had been tormenting her with cruel rhymes. On the day of her death, Cupid Day, Sam and her friends send Juliet their annual rose, with a message taunting the fact that she never has – that she probably never will – receive a rose from someone who cares about her. And finally, Kent, the boy Sam was friends with as a child but tossed off when she became popular, in favor of her skeezy lacrosse player boyfriend.

Sam isn’t a likeable character when the novel opens, but she’s aware of that, even directs that line of thought back at the reader.

I know some of you are thinking maybe I deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that rose to Juliet or dumped my drink on her at the party. Maybe I shouldn’t have copied off Lauren Lornet’s quiz. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things to Kent. There are probably some of you who think I deserved it because I was going to let Rob go all the way – because I wasn’t going to save myself.

But before you start pointing fingers, let me ask you: is what I did really so bad? So bad I deserved to die? So bad I deserved to die like that?

Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does?

Is it really so much worse than what you do?

Think about it.

Oliver pulls no punches in asking her reader to identify with Sam’s character, and to question their own actions, in this way. These asides, either directed at the reader or commenting on Sam’s own actions as she relives “Cupid Day”, become a sort of pleasant break from the petty incidents of the novel, the name-calling and gossip-mongering. Sam’s authorial voice in these moments is strong, but always believably that of a teenager. Although Sam only lives this one day seven times, Oliver develops her character well throughout; she changes, at times gradually and at times quickly and at times seemingly not at all, but she is always developing and rethinking her actions as anyone would at her age. The idea around which the novel centers, that Sam is somehow bound to relive the day of her death until she is able to change something, improve herself, has Sam turning into a more feeling and sympathetic character during the reading. Even as she becomes a better person, though, she makes missteps, issuing a number of mild cruelties that she intended to be kind.

So many of Sam’s observations are typical high school fare, but Oliver gives them a new weight and meaning. In a sense, Before I Fall offers Sam an opportunity to engineer her own funeral. Even as she becomes a fuller and more caring person, she is concerned in part with how people will think of her after she dies. She wants them, she writes, not just to remember her, but to remember her as a good person. She focuses, too, on the way people change, and how quickly and slowly that change can come. After just a few days, Sam feels that she is becoming a different person than her friends, that something is inalterably different in their interactions because she, unlike them, has been given the opportunity to shift her actions and view their effects on this single day. Oliver, again, grounds her novel well in keeping Sam’s thoughts on this point so much like those of any other high school girl:

It’s weird how much people change. For example, when I was a kid I loved all of these things – like horses and the Fat Feast and Goose Point – and over time all of them just fell away, one after another, replaced by friends and IMing and cell phones and boys and clothes. It’s kind of sad, if you think about it. Like there’s no continuity in people at all. Like something ruptures when you hit twelve, or thirteen, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a “young adult,” and after that you’re a totally different person. Maybe even a less happy person. Maybe even a worse one.

Oliver does an creditable job of combining the typical high school story with this metaphysical one of change and growth and opportunity. Sam never seems to think of herself as not-dead, because she is so keenly aware of what is coming at the end of each of her relived days; but in the development of her actions and thoughts, she is absolutely alive, absolutely human, absolutely believable. In Before I Fall Oliver finds a new way of telling this story of high school popularity and redemption. In doing so, she’s given us a world that is recognizable (sometimes, too recognizable; prepare to relive some of your own more humiliating high school moments) but also, despite the repetition of events and stories, new and remarkably fresh.


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Review: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

Dennis Lehane’s novels may be shelved in the crime section, but what you begin to sense as you read his fiction is that many of his overarching concerns – in family, in community, and in how people use these things to define themselves and their decisions – would be at home in the “literary fiction” genre. To point this out isn’t to suggest that literary fiction is “better” than crime novels, but rather to say that Lehane is an extraordinary writer producing works that are at once accessible, plot-driven, and thought-provoking.

Mystic River is his best novel to date. Hand this one to anyone who speaks about genre fiction with their nose in the air and you’ll have a convert to the world of mass market paperbacks. Mystic River is as well-plotted as any of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro detective novels, but because he follows his three main characters from youth he is able to explore more deeply those issues of community that have appeared in his other works.

Mystic River opens in 1975, with three friends who will in time be divided by community (who’s from the Point? who’s from the Flats?), differences of personality, and what happens when one of them, Dave Boyle, gets into a car driven by “policemen” who are in fact child molesters. After Dave escapes his captors, we leave them until 2000. All three remain in Boston: Dave, married with a child; Sean, a police officer separated from his wife; and Jimmy, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered the same night Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood, claiming to have been mugged.

Lehane’s narrative loops us back in history, pointing to the ways long-ago events (not just the day Dave got into the car when the other two boys wouldn’t, but Jimmy’s two-year sentence for robbery and what got him there) color seemingly unrelated moments in the present. Near novel’s end Jimmy reflects on the karmic nature of his daughter’s death, how her seemingly random murder can in some way be viewed as the only natural response to something Jimmy did shortly after his long-ago release from prison.

Lehane’s skill lies not only in carefully plotting so that these loopings through time and history read as naturally as actual events, but in fully exploring his characters’ motivations and the ways they’ve been formed. There’s Dave, who initially seems not greatly affected by his molestation as an eleven-year-old, but who, as novel progresses, reveals himself to be a scarred and flawed man seeking some form of redemption; Sean, who is unable to let go of his pride to find a way to get back the wife who left him a year earlier, and who has to investigate the lives of two childhood friends; and Jimmy, whose grief over his daughter’s death is coupled with a desire for some revenge, as well as a redemption for his community.

After Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found murdered after a night out, the police speak to Dave Boyle only because he happened to be in one of the bars she visited with her friends. Long before Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave was involved in Katie’s murder, Lehane reveals the ways Dave’s seeing Katie is painful, somehow wrong, to Jimmy:

It was this knowledge – that someone other than Jimmy possessed an image of Katie that postdated Jimmy’s own – that had finally allowed him to weep in the first place. (263)

Although we see Jimmy’s grief for his daughter, it’s the married couples that gain most of Lehane’s attention, and where we see the most powerful relationships taking place. Jimmy and Annabeth compare themselves to Dave and his wife, Celeste; they are able to mark themselves as different, better, than the other couple, because of the strength of their belief in one another.

No character in Mystic River is entirely clean or free of blame in either Katie’s death or Dave Boyle’s story. Lehane explores their degrees of guilt without judgement, and while the characters pass judgement on one another there is little temptation for the reader to do the same. Lehane writes, as ever, about deeply flawed individuals who are trying to somehow better themselves and their worlds. Lehane suggests, at the same moment, that there is little possibility of his characters escaping their pasts and their communities, and that these ties and faults are what make them worth knowing.


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Review: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

With a book as hyped as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, it’s impossible not to wonder how your reaction is tied up with the massive advertising campaign devoted to the novel. Reading about the novel as some sort of one-shot Harry Potter, of a movie deal before publication, of circus events set up to advertise the book, makes the book hard to see for itself. On one hand, you’re only reading the book because of the hype machine; on the other, the book can never live up to all the pre-publication praise; from another angle, you want to love the book so you can join the crowds that are heaping praise on it; from another, your inability to love the book the way you’ve been told you should makes you resent the reading experience more than you otherwise would.

In some regards, The Night Circus is a gorgeous book. Revolving around two illusionists, Celia and Marco, the book follows them and the competition they’ve been bonded to. The night circus, which moves from location to location with little notice and is closed during daylight hours, is the canvas for their competition, which over the years morphs into a collaboration of sorts between the illusionists. They don’t compete against each other Harry Potter-style, dueling with their Ollivander wands, but rather work as if they’re playing a chess game; one creates a new tent or attraction for the circus, and the other responds in kind.

Morgenstern takes chapters from four views: Celia’s, Marco’s, Bailey’s (a boy who visits and falls in love with the circus, eventually being pulled into the competition), and the second person. What she seems to be aiming for, with those last two views – the “you” and Bailey – is a sort of wonder with the circus; by telling us what the circus is, what it means for its guests, she attempts to imbue the novel with the same magic Bailey feels when he visits the circus.

The problem with this is that while some parts of the world are drawn gorgeously, fully, others are left so bare as to drag the story down. The competition that Celia and Marco are a part of is so vaguely defined that it reads as if the author herself doesn’t know what the aim or rules of the contest are. As if to keep the world of the night circus in the world of the fantastic, she never moors the world to any recognizable set of rules. This might seem appealing when you’re thinking of a fantasy novel – nothing to hold it back! – but reading The Night Circus serves to remind that one of the things that makes Harry Potter such a loved series are all the rules (to the magic lessons, to quidditch, to how Harry can interact with Voldemort), that the world of Lord of the Rings is defined right down to the grammar structure of each and every language, that what makes it possible to love the fantasy stories of our childhoods is not the lack of rules and boundaries but their clear and defining presence. Perhaps Morgenstern wanted to say something about the limitless nature of fantasy by not placing any limits on the contest between Celia and Marco; but it reads as though she was too lazy, or too consumed with the imagery of her text, to define the contest – if not for Celia or Marco, then for the reader at least. Celia at one point asks her father, “How can I excel at a game when you refuse to tell me the rules?” The reader, likewise, can’t be expected to experience the book as fully as he or she might, without knowing what guides the central conflict.

Morgenstern devotes much of her authorly energy to detailing, rather than illuminating, the world of the night circus. This is a novel that may well make an extraordinary movie; the best parts of the novel are Morgenstern’s descriptions of Marco’s and Celia’s illusions, but even these fall flat as Morgenstern is unable ever to show us why something is extraordinary, but only to tell us that it is. Celia and Marco’s love for one another, which is meant to stand at novel’s center, is hardly believable; we’re told that the power of their feelings for each other touches everything around them, even heating the air at a party, but that love never feels like more than a plot device.* We have ships made out of books, seas of ink, tents filled with cloud mazes, extraordinary clocks, but these images, every last one of them, read better as directions to a film director than as passages in a novel.

The verdict? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but The Night Circus is a book that I see doing better as a movie, with a director who will give credit to Morgenstern’s images while providing more shape to the plot. I’m in the minority in not loving this book, though, so be sure to read the reviews up at Words and Peace, Entomology of a Bookworm, and Confessions of a Booklush if you’re looking for a more positive opinion.

* I feel uncomfortable even using the phrase “plot device” here, as the greatest failing of The Night Circus is that its plot is so damn vague.


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