It’s the rare novel that can live up to a killer premise, those bombshell ideas that get readers’ minds snapping and crackling like crossed wires, so much so that the printed page translation of that idea almost always pales in comparison. We create our own fantasies, after all, artists simply point the way. So to say that Aimee Bender’s (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) crisply dreamlike new novel doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of its central conceit is less of a criticism than it might seem. Bender takes a clever idea and runs with it as well as can be expected, being more focused on how one particular life-changing event affects her protagonist rather than on its repercussions for the wider world. For the latter, that’s why we have science fiction.
Rose Edelstein is a nine-year-old girl living in a quiet, leafy corner of upper-middle-class Los Angeles with her parents and older brother. Her narrator begins the novel in a quiet, summery playground reverie, that drifting and laconic amble of childhood speech which so many authors attempt and so few even come close to approximating. She is helping her mother bake a cake, when she sneaks a taste. It’s lasciviously described by Bender, whose language can be somehow clean and baroque at the same time. Rose takes the “small warm spongy chunk of deep gold,” slathers it in chocolate icing, and pops it in her mouth. From that moment on, her innocence is lost. Because Rose discovers that she now tastes what her mother is feeling, and it’s nothing good.
…the goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense in her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down.
Simple as that, Rose’s life has been changed forever. Over the course of the novel, she will have to learn how to deal with this devastatingly transformative change. Her mother, a nervous and high-revving sort who was then in between jobs and at odds and ends with herself (though of course never hinting at any of this to her daughter) is a dark well of busy melancholia, one that Rose now experiences with every taste of each home-cooked meal and dessert. Her home-packed school lunches are an emotional minefield, as well. Rose spends one lunchtime sucking down drinking-fountain water, “pouring rust and fluoride into my mouth, trying to erase my peanut-butter sandwich.”
Vending machines and their factory produced wares are a godsend. Rose can still taste emotions in the potato chips and Oreos, but they’re far away, the sensations of an assembly-line laborer many states away muffled by gloves and hurry. As Rose navigates her world of treacherous food, the reality of her mother’s problems continually crash into her mind, unbidden and unwanted. Containment becomes the only solution, Rose realizes, riding in the car with her mother, who tells Rose not to worry so much about her:
But in the look was still that same yearning. Please worry about me, I saw in there. Her voice not matching her eyes. I knew if I ate anything of hers again, it would likely tell me the same message: Help me, I am not happy, help me—like a message in a bottle sent in each meal to the eater, and I got it. I got the message.
And now my job was to pretend I did not get the message.
Rose ages, learns to live with her problem. A lunch lady whose pizza has a good taste to it. Friends whose parents provide less-traumatically-scented food to be traded for. Better by far is George, the even brainier friend of her egghead brother Joseph. Not only is George dashing and funny and attentive and charming and utterly oblivious to her planet-sized crush, he also takes her problem seriously when she tells them.
Being of a scientific mind, George even insists on a true experiment, getting her out of the house and to a nearby cookie shop so they can research how good she is at detecting the mood of the baker. Though jokey at first (“Take subject out of environment and re-test, he said, making quote fingers with his hands”) it turns serious as Rose bites into part of the baker’s sandwich, prepared for him by a girlfriend whose food screams “love me” into her nine-year-old brain.
Though there are hints of white knights appearing here and there, Rose ultimately has to figure out how to live with her gift/curse on her own. It’s frightening at times, rewarding at others, layering a rich tapestry of wonder and fright over her life, one that Bender renders with an exquisitely textured language. The book veers into a sort of foodie emotional nirvana at times—one can imagine lovers of the Eat, Pray, Love school of writing desperately pining for Rose’s ability to merge tastebuds and emotion—and it ruins no surprise to tell that she eventually finds work in a kitchen.
Bender can’t quite come to grasp with the enormity of what she has conjured up here, and that’s likely a good thing. In fact, she doubles down on the story’s unknowningness in the character of Joseph, a remote wanderer who takes the art of disappearance to a new level in the book’s wonderfully odd closing stretches. For Bender, it’s not the knowing why something has come about which seems important, but the witnessing how one comes through it that matters.