By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; C04
THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE
By Aimee Bender
Doubleday. 292 pp. $25.95
By Jane Mendelsohn
Knopf. 237 pp. $23.95
Right next to those mature, realistic novels you've been reading with a nagging sense of weariness lurks a small collection of books with a dash of magic. Don't worry: No vampires, no space aliens, no time-traveling Scottish hunks strut through these pages. I'm talking about perfectly respectable-looking novels in which strange things take place out of the corner of your eye. These subtle surrealists describe domestic life just one turn of the screw away. If you find yourself in the elevator wistfully looking for floor 7 1/2 , stop and get off here.
Two odd and oddly beautiful novels this month will tempt you to see what talented writers can do when they rip little tears in the fabric of reality. Each in her 40s, Aimee Bender and Jane Mendelsohn are not particularly prolific, but they've earned lavish critical praise. Mendelsohn's first novel, "I Was Amelia Earhart," became an unlikely bestseller in 1996, and Bender's weird short stories, most recently in "Willful Creatures," already seem destined for anthologized immortality.
Their melancholy new novels depict young women overwhelmed with extrasensory impressions, a burden of sympathy and insight that's as revelatory as it is painful. In Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," 9-year-old Rose Edelstein sneaks an early piece of her birthday cake and feels her mouth "filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset." She can't articulate it yet, but she knows instinctively that she's detecting the state of her mother's soul. Experiments conducted with a friend at school confirm that Rose can taste the feelings of anyone who prepares her food: Oatmeal cookies from a rushed baker taste "like eating the calendar of an executive"; soup at the hospital "tasted of resentment, fine and full"; a depressed woman prepares a sad pie. As Rose's friend says, "She's like a magic food psychic or something."
Too much of this could quickly overwhelm the flavor of a story with the cloying aftertaste of Alice Hoffman's most overcooked novels, but Bender is sparing with the pixie dust. And besides, what really interests her is the sympathy Rose feels for her family, shown in a series of small, delicate scenes that convey the loneliness of these lives. Rose's father behaves like a polite guest in his own house. Her mother manically jumps from hobby to hobby while clinging to her two children with desperate, almost panicked affection. She seems like one of those women who would breastfeed her son till second grade. Rose's uncanny taste buds aren't really such a stretch beyond most children's ability to detect the strains in their parents' lives, those flavors of guilt, disappointment and resentment that we try to overwhelm with suburbia's artificial sweeteners.
But the most moving section comes in the latter half as Rose grows more aware of her brother's troubles. He's never diagnosed -- his mother won't tolerate that -- and Bender never pins down his condition with a label like Asperger's or agoraphobia, but clearly something is wrong. "All that came through," Rose says, "was that he just wanted to be as alone as possible, aloner than alone, alonest." His agony has nothing to do with food, but in a way he suffers from Rose's hypersensitivity toward those around him. It's here, in a climactic scene that's creepy and delicate, that the real magic of Bender's writing takes place, a tribute to the struggles of people who feel the world too much.
Jane Mendelsohn is a different kind of writer, more openly romantic and lush, but you'll detect a similar strain of the surreal in her new short novel, "American Music." At the opening, Honor, a physical therapist, comes to the VA hospital in the Bronx to work with a badly injured vet. "She possessed an uncommon discipline of mind," Mendelsohn writes, "and a fierce sensitivity to the physical world." The soldier, a young man named Milo, is suffering from a spinal injury and post-traumatic stress inflicted by a roadside bomb in Iraq. At first he won't speak to Honor. "She knows only his back, his neck, his arms, his legs," but as she massages him, she begins "to feel as though she could read him, as she could interpret the meaning in his knots and sinews. Sometimes, and this was not the first time she had questioned her sanity, she received visions from his limbs, his muscles, his bones."
My daughter once had a craniosacral therapist like this who totally freaked me out, but Mendelsohn isn't really writing about a clairvoyant masseuse anymore than Bender is writing about psychic taste buds. Honor articulates how both these novelists might defend their odd pursuit: "She didn't care if none of it seemed possible. It wasn't possible, but it was true."
As Honor continues to work with Milo, therapist and patient become aware of three different stories that emanate whenever she touches him: One involves a childless marriage breaking down during the Depression; another describes a famous but lonely photographer in the 1960s; and the third one takes us back to 17th-century Turkey, where a sultan's concubine struggles to survive court intrigue.
These various sections are helpfully labeled, so keeping them straight isn't a problem, but deducing their meaning is a mystery to Milo and Honor -- and us -- a mystery only partially explained by the end of the novel. What's clear, though, is what a captivating storyteller Mendelsohn can be, and ultimately "American Music" is a novel about the power of stories. She's remarkably good at setting scenes quickly and evocatively, raising up characters we care about immediately and drawing us into their conflicts. And like Bender, she's willing to break our usual three dimensions and let something miraculous slide along the margins: a winged man, a porous wall, a body like a haunted house. If her affection for rich, epigraphic lines sometimes tempts her to sound pretentious, more often she writes the kind of lovely, wise phrases that will have you underlining passages.
Ultimately, this is a romantic story of romantic stories, full of love and longing, despair and loneliness, and one woman's connection to all of them. Milo faces a "cold and unlit [life] lived in a small room," but the tales he experiences with Honor gradually draw him out of the myopia of his own pain. When she asks how he knows he's getting better, Milo replies, "Because I want to know what's going to happen next." That, don't forget, is the reason we started listening to stories in the first place, and here are two sophisticated novelists who can still cast that primal enchantment.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.