The Burden, Obsession, Absence, Avoidance of Talent

in Aimee Bender’s “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

There was a time, when I was many years younger and in some ways wiser, when reading a book was at the top of my list of priorities. This was before I had a notion of priorities, actually; when I was nine years old and devoured Roald Dahl and Matt Christopher books simply because reading was what I wanted to do at that moment, and the only calendar I cared for was the one we got at the beginning of the year telling us which days we had off school.

Now I read only when I have nothing better thing to do. I read in afternoons when the writing has been done and the errands have been run, and late in the evenings in half-hour increments stolen from the next day’s sleep. On occasion, I’ll glance at the quarter-read books on my nightstand and the 24%-read books on my Kindle and the unread books on my bookshelf and feel guilty about not reading enough.

Which was why it was so invigorating to put reading first again—for a day, at least—when last month I participated in Diana Kimball’s 24-hour book club, an online reading flashmob she’d started after similar reminiscences about reading as a kid.

Our chosen book: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, which on the surface was about that same age in our lives, and the adult that becomes of that nine-year-old child. As I read it I saw, like many of the other participants reading along and discussing on Twitter, a book about family and food.

But now, after the rocks and sand and first impressions have fallen through memory’s sifting calloused uneven hands, I see in my pan a very different book, a book about talent—its possession or lack thereof—and our various responses toward it.

There is the main character, Rose, who discovers she can taste feelings in food—the emotions of people involved in its making. There is her older brother, Joseph, a physics and math whiz who keeps to himself and is prone to mysterious disappearances, which we later discover is due to his ability to assimilate himself into pieces of furniture.There is her mother, who moves from interest to interest, who tends to abandon a new interest upon encountering “the wall after her natural first ability rush faded and she had to struggle along with the regularly skilled people.” And there is Rose’s father, who has a strange aversion to hospitals and is entirely pleased to possess no special skills: “I scored exactly in the fiftieth percentile on the LSAT,” he says.

Each character embodies a different response to talent. The mother believes she doesn’t have it; is the fickle generalist who desperately wants to find her “thing”:

“She’d been working as an office administrator, but she didn’t like copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when my father paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him if she could take some time off and learn to do more with her hands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hips against his; my hands have had no lessons in anything.” 

The brother is the savant whose talent doesn’t seem to serve a useful purpose, yet who is so engrossed by his talent, so obsessed with doing it for its own sake and getting better at it, that he literally disappears into it:

“In a voice so quiet I had to put my ear right up close to his mouth, so quiet I could hardly hold on to the words, he whispered to me that the chair was his favorite, was the easiest to sustain. That at other times, he had been the bed, the dresser, the table, the nightstand. It took time, it had taken almost constant practice. It was good while he was away, but terribly hard when he returned. I’ve tried many options, he said. I’ve tried different choices. But the chair, he said, is the best.”

There are those who willfully ignore their talents, embodied in Rose’s father. We learn eventually that Rose’s grandfather had a skill, too, similar to Rose’s: the ability to smell emotions. And for Rose’s dad, seeing what this did to his own father turns out to be the source of the fear of hospitals:

“Just, I imagine, he said, crossing his arms. That I might be able to do something in a hospital. I don’t know what. It’s too much, right? That if I went into a hospital something might come up, some skill. That’s all. Better not to find out, that’s what I say. Keep it simple! Keep things easy!”

This seems extreme at first, like refusing to buy a lottery ticket because you’re afraid of what the money will do to you if you win. Yet I see a degree of this same willful ignorance in myself and in people I know, who would be really great at something—and are already really great at something—if only they would cross that threshold.

I think for many of those who make a living doing what they enjoy and are good at, the relationship with a talent most closely follows Rose’s path with her own. At first, nobody believes or understands what she can do. She complains her food tastes empty and hollow and is sent to the nurse. The diagnosis: an active imagination. Later, Rose eats a bite of her mother’s food and tries to tell her, “You’re so sad in there … alone, and hungry, and sad—” and is taken to the emergency room. Thus, the child learns to keep her talent to herself.

As she goes through her teenage years, Rose finds a few people along the way—Joseph’s friend George and a new girl at school—whom she can confide in, and who recognize her talent. Many of us have figures like these in our own lives, like the second grade teacher who saw that you loved drawing and one day had you stick around after class so she could give you a book on how to draw dinosaurs. Or the girl in your high school english class who, after you nervously read aloud the result of a writing exercise, said sincerely, “That was good, I really liked that.”

After the final disappearance of her brother, Rose begins to accept her talent, and seeks out restaurants and foods that speak to it, eventually asking for a job from—and demonstrating her talent to—Madame and Monsieur Dupont, the co-owners and chefs of a French café. It is the way a writer who has a special sensitivity for character and emotion might seek out writing that appeals to that sensitivity, and I can’t help but wonder if Rose’s progress with food mirrors Aimee Bender’s progress with her own talent. And at the end, from the other side of the waters of adolescence, Bender concludes that talent can be a burden, yes, but also a great gift, and that in the right environment and with the proper encouragement, one needn’t repress their natural ability.

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