Don’t let the breezy summer-fic looking cover fool you, Aimee heads into dark and heady territory with her mesmerizing second novel; one I suspect won’t be understood/appreciated by the beach readers or the book clubbers. That sounds snooty, but I don’t care because it’s true.
Rose is nine and one morning realizes she can taste the emotions/feelings of the person who prepared her food. She first discovers this power while eating a cake her mother made, and tasting her deep sadness and dissatisfaction. The novel follows Rose through her teens and mid-twenties, learning to live with her power and the secrets of others. While her family, on the surface, represents the usual suburban drama (unhappy mom, neglectful dad, distant brother, an affair), Bender makes it all seem fresh from a very bent but revealing entry point into their lives.
Bender knows how to handle the fantastical elements (by playing it straight, by simultaneously making it plain and strange and believable, by letting it be part of the book’s fabric, no red herrings) while never losing her special sense of humanity with which she imbues her characters.
This novel is light-years better than the overblown/overhyped THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris, which attempted (and failed) to mine similar territory. In his novel, the oddity is a bizarre medical condition that befalls the husband. The condition (an compulsion to walk/jog is interesting, but the husband and his family is not. The novel has no heart, reads like an (at times) poorly written exercise in what-if. Which is a shame because I loved his “Dinner Party” short story in the New Yorker.
Cynicism and jealousy aside, I was itching to rage at the injustice of having Ferris in the New Yorker’s top 20 under 40 list and Bender not on it. But thirty seconds of research reveals that Aimee is a shade over 40 years old. Regardless, Aimee Bender remains on my list as one of my favorite currently working authors. Go read her!