We’ve heard back from Aimee Bender, the author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, who has provided wonderfully thoughtful answers to your questions. Her comments appear throughout in italics.
First off, just a big thank you to all of you for your thoughtful commentary and questions—it was a pleasure reading your comments online.
From discussion leader Jennifer Mirsky:
I’m eager to hear more from author Aimee Bender and I’ll start off our round of questioning with this prosaic yet perplexing question: “Where” does Joseph go? Does he engage in some sort of time travel experiment as readers Caitlin and Miriam had speculated? And why does he feel such a compelling drive to be “alone” and “away?”So, I’ll say what I think, but just as an aside, for all of these—I figure that my interpretation is just one of many; even though I’m the author I don’t think I own the interpretation, and don’t want to shut down other opinions. Okay. Just wanted to say that. Now, two things. One is a link to an interview where I talk about this in depth and second is that I felt that he went directly into the chair, a way to get away from a world he can’t handle. A reader below, Tracy, said it in the way that I think about it—in my sense of the book, Joseph may be the most sensitive of all of them, and I think of his power is kind of a reaction against sensitivity—a way to fully numb himself, to remove himself, whereas the other powers are born from sensitivities.
If I have one question for Aimee, it’s why does the father wait so many years to share the information about his father, and himself?
Posted by: Lisa| Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 01:55 PM
It’s an interesting question—I imagine the father did not want to think much about any of this, and only the sight of his daughter, mostly grown up, and the loss of his son, and that photo album, and that moment, allowed the thought to even bubble to the surface. I’ve had experiences where a thought comes out of nowhere, a basic seemingly obvious thought that for whatever reason wasn’t free to rise up before, and something changes because of my freedom to have the new thought. So I think of him like that— you’d think this might be the first thing he’d share with his daughter, but his own relationship to his father’s skill clearly caused him distress and so I think he buried it, for a long time. And then when he revealed it, he couldn’t really look at what he’d revealed, but she could.
Two items that I felt were unresolved:
1) I was curious about the “factory” taste Rose detected in her own cooking and if that was significant.
2) Was there any background about the grandmother and why she refused to visit?
Posted by: Mary| Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 06:11 PM
I also had the unanswered question about her tasting her own food and getting the factory taste—basically making it feel like she is some sort of factory. That was never explored.
Posted by: Lori| Friday, August 20, 2010 at 08:46 AM
The factory is significant, yes. I’m glad you asked. Rose chooses the vending machines, and survives via the vending machines, but in the world of this book, if food is a metaphor for all the unspoken stuff between people, then she is also choosing no-people, choosing machines, choosing blankness. So her tasting the factory is like an elaborate development of the old adage, ‘we are what we eat’. Some part of her was turning into something machine-like, disconnected from others, even as she was trying to stay connected, and this is what she saw in Joseph’s disappearance that felt disturbingly familiar to her. In this way the two siblings are similar, but his reaction is much more extreme than hers. She is able to find a way to participate, because her gift is something she can manage, but his was not manageable.
Re the grandmother—I did write other scenes, but mainly what felt key to me was that she was a distant person, and I imagined there was a coldness in the grandmother that left the mother feeling always needy, always wanting.
As Jennifer has asked, I am interested in where the brother goes and what is this special skill that he has. Also, what was the point of the grandmother? At one point, one of the readers made a comment about the mother and questioned whether the affair was just another one of her projects, yet she is still with the same guy after many years. Strange that she remains with the father. What do we think that special skill with hospitals could be that Dad thinks he may have? Hmm.
Posted by: kathy| Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 08:12 AM
Yes, maybe the affair is a project she is able to continue, which allows her to stick with the woodworking!
About the hospitals—to be honest, I’m not sure. I only know what the father said—the rest of him is locked off to me too. But he seems to hint about some ability to be helpful, in a way he didn’t want to know about, but that may just be his own idea, and not the real ability at all.
As for questions for Aimee, I am going to echo other readers…what is the significance/meaning of the unidentifiable factory taste that Rose encounters when she tastes her own food? My other lingering question is about Joseph: did he have Asperger’s or was he on the Autistic spectrum? Or was his social awkwardness and isolation just a piece of his ‘special talent’?
Posted by: Caitlin| Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 10:41 PM
About Asperger’s/Autism. It’s a tough one to answer. In my mind, part of the fiction writer’s job is to describe, to portray, to develop, but not necessarily to name. Diagnosing can be a way to peg a person into a slot, and lose touch, sometimes, with who they are. Not always, but it’s a danger. My sister is a child psychiatrist and once she was reading Jane Eyre, and she looked up from the book and said, ‘there’s a perfect description of ADD in here!’ I loved that comment, because I felt she was seeing, in writing, a description that she, as a doctor, had identified as a diagnosis, but the description developed and expanded her notion of ADD. Anyway, I’m actually not sure if Joseph is on the spectrum. He definitely wants to remove himself from the world, but I’m more inclined to think it’s because he is too easily overwhelmed by other people. In a way, this is like someone who is autistic, and in another way, he’s the opposite—burdened more than Rose because of his own tuning in. So on the surface, he might appear autistic, but what’s making him look that way might be quite different. But a couple people have mentioned how accurately autistic he feels, and I’m glad to hear that, too—maybe in a way he flows back and forth between that sensitivity and that distance.
My question for Aimee Bender: How did you come up with such a unique idea for a book (tasting a person’s emotions through their cooking)? Your descriptions of the food are so detailed—do you have experience in the food industry?
Posted by: Kelly| Monday, August 23, 2010 at 11:46 AM
I love to eat and cook and go to restaurants and read menus and cookbooks and food writing. So all of that was very fun to do. It’s hard to directly track where the beginning of the book happened, but I do know that writing about food has always been a pleasure for me, as reader and writer; Gertrude Stein says when writing about food, always make sure to say what is being eaten! And I second that whole-heartedly. I hate it when I’m reading a book, and it says, ‘they had dinner.’ I’m too curious.
Does Joseph feel other people’s emotions so strongly that becoming an inanimate object is his only refuge? I might be way off base here! :) Half the fun of the book was trying to figure it out myself.
Also: During Joseph’s final time “away,” does his human body eventually die, leaving no possibility of his return?
Posted by: Tracy| Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 01:01 PM
Tracy—yes, I really think of Joseph this way, and you’re not way off base at all—I think you’re really onto something! I think of him the same way, as someone like the man in Into the Wild who left the civilized world but possibly in part to get away from people, who were too much.
And it’s a good question, about his time away. Since he was so dehydrated and sick after shorter visits, I figured that after a longer time away, his body would die inside the chair, so then the chair itself became a kind of gravestone for Rose.
As for questions to Aimee Bender, I’d like to know why she chose to have the mother and father continue to live a lie. I’d like to know why she didn’t give more detail and attention to Joseph’s experience. On a more personal level, I’d like to know what inspired her to write this book. Have there been experiences or people in her life that we might find somewhere in the pages of this story?
Posted by: Beth| Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 04:23 PM
Hi Beth, let’s see. The way I think of it is just that my job is to reflect ways people are, not how they should be, or how we’d hope they’d be. And I do think people live lies all the time. The mother is comfortable with the father, and does love him, and the father does not want to know. So together they orbit each other, but no one will initiate the conversation that would cause the rupture that would either heal or dissolve the marriage. I think this is not uncommon. But it is painful.
About Joseph—it was a very delicate situation he was in, and to write too much felt like I would tip the boat, and it could easily become garish or over the top. I felt like I was fully believing what was happening, but I had to go sentence by sentence to make sure I believed each sentence. It was an intense process! So in that way, it can feel quite spare. But I was really telling as much as I could; I tend to follow the language solely, and that’s where the paragraphs went.
And about experiences in my life—there isn’t any direct correlation, but I think writers always show up in our own books because we wrote ‘em. Something emotionally has to ring true or else it won’t work. I do remember being about 12 or so, and my mother, who choreographs wonderful dances, did a piece with 3 dancers. One of the dancers, named Joseph, was in a car accident, and he couldn’t do the dance she’d planned. But my mother is one who works with limits well, and she asked him if he was willing to be in a chair, for the dance. He said yes. Two women danced around him, and he sat in the chair. At some point, he got up and exited, and one woman came out and did a solo, with the chair. My mother called the dance ‘Quartet,’ including the chair, and even at twelve, I felt how it was a deeply sad and moving piece, and how the chair had become a representative for this person who had left. Halfway through writing the book, when the chair scene happened, I thought of that dance, and how the dancer was named Joe, and just felt amazed at how influences can travel through the decades.
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