I recently read Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of
Lemon Cake, about a young girl, Rose, who discovers that she can taste the
emotions of the people who have prepared her food—from her mom all the way to
the farmer who plucked the ingredients from his field. One of my favorite
scenes from the novel occurs after Rose and her dad return from a driving
lesson. As they sit in the car in the garage, Rose tells her dad a story about
a fellow student who didn’t do well in his classes. A teacher tells
him he should get his eyes tested, and sure enough, he needs glasses. Rose
The kid goes home, right? I said. With his glasses. And his
new reading book. And his mom greets him at the door. She’s smiling, because
the school called with the good news. But he can see she’s really tired. He
hasn’t seen her in years, clearly: years! And she’s totally exhausted, there
are these dark circles under her eyes and when she smiles it looks like one of
her teeth is a little brown box. They can’t afford the dentist. Right? And his
house? It’s a wreck. One side is falling down, and there are cockroaches
running across the floor and there’s a big hole in the wall that he thought was
I laughed a number of times while reading the scene, but I
especially loved that the painting turned out to be a hole in the wall. It’s
what’s called a telling detail—“a fundamental unit of fiction that captures the
individuality and uniqueness—the very essence—of what is being described,” as
Brandi Reissenweber explains in an Ask The Writer column on this site. “It
doesn’t simply inspire an image in the imagination, it also suggests an
abstraction, such as meaning or emotion,” she writes. In addition to the humor
and surprise this detail sparks, it also suggests Rose’s own struggle with her
“special skill,” as another character calls her hypersensitive sense of taste.
What might seem to be beautiful turns out to be painful when Rose suspects that
her mom’s unhappiness has led to an extramarital affair.
C. Lange, associate editor
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