Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake chronicles the coming-of-age of a girl with the uncanny ability to taste the emotions of those who have prepared her food. The book is vital, revealing, and somehow comforting. It is one of those friendly titles that I like to keep nestled in my bedside bookshelf.
Bender’s most recent work, The Color Master, may merit a place beside it. Populated by Amazonian women, ogres, royalty, and humans with special powers or complicated flaws, these stories trouble and enchant.
The collection opens with a short and stunning piece, “Appleless.” Shot through with lyrically-driven descriptions of edibles, “Appleless” evokes many of Bender’s signature traits, but sets an unsettling tone. Told mostly in the eery first-person plural, the story centers on a mysterious community of apple-eaters.
Bender tempers disquieting premises by keeping the human capacity for affection in view. The narrator of “Lemonade,” a misfit teenage girl navigating a precarious social circle, provides a remarkably tender, generous, and idiosyncratic voice—one akin to a contemporary, better-tempered Holden Caulfield. “I smiled at people walking by,” the narrator, Louanne, tells us. “An old man with overalls walked by; I don’t think old people should wear overalls; it makes them look like shrivelly toddlers. But I smiled at him anyway.” Later, after being ditched by her friends at the mall—teenage betrayal if ever there was such a thing—Louanne remains beneficently engaged with her environment, spreading goodwill with each thoughtful glance while providing her own peculiar philosophies.
Even while spinning fairy tales, Bender maintains a highly relatable, contemporary tone. The title story is a prequel, of sorts, to the French fairy tale “Donkeyskin,” in which a king tries to marry his daughter. In an attempt to outwit her father, the princess demands a series of implausible dresses. Each must be the color of a natural element: the moon, the sun, the sky. In Bender’s telling, the princess turns to a store specializing in such items. “The Color Master” is narrated by the dressmaker tasked with coloring the gowns, and opens with a lovingly wry tone: “Our store was expensive,” the narrator explains, “I mean Ex-Pen-Sive, as anything would be if all its requests were for clothing in the colors of natural elements.” We follow the narrator’s struggle to learn the craft of a wise and virtuosic woman (the “Color Master”) who alone knows how to create the colors requested by the princess.
The final story, “The Devourings,” is perhaps the most potent. The tale of a woman married to a (literal) ogre, it explores the nature of love between individuals—and relationships between communities—with fundamentally different temperaments, appetites, and moral compasses. Bender’s humorous yet heartfelt tone easily carries—and enriches—such material.
These stories are more than the sum of their fantastic or magical parts. Bender rewards her readers. Each story poses a puzzle that grows ever more curious, until at last Bender’s deft touch reveals a crucial shift: a band of predators feels hunger, an emotionally-distant character feels pain. I’m not easily pleased by fables or riddles, and at times, I resisted the tricky premises Bender sets—but her denouements are always worth it.