100 in ’11: McCafferty, Bender and Shriver

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

Summary: An unhappy suburban family starts to unravel, as told by their precocious young daughter, who can taste the cook’s emotions through food.

I’m told Bender is a superb short story writer. I was hooked on the first page thanks to a throwaway line about ingredients lined up for baking on a counter – “butter blurring at the edges”. Just beautiful. Unfortunately, what started out as a promising book lost its way in a spectacular fashion.

While Bender’s prose is exquisite, its also wholly unconvincing from the narrative viewpoint of a nine-year-old. Overnight, Rose’s life is altered when she discovers she can taste in every meal the feelings of the person who made it. And unfortunately, we are all far less happy than we outwardly project. Eating is essentially ruined for Rose, and she switches to a diet of packaged, processed food as much as possible – the only food she can stomach is the sandwiches made by her best friend’s parents, compiled with love and a caring hand. Meanwhile, her distant parents and brother continue to grow further apart, with particularly devastating consequences once her sibling’s own supernatural secret is revealed. And that is when the story descends into the realm of sheer madness and pure WTF-ery. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Bumped – Megan McCafferty

Summary: Madness reigns in an alternate future where only teenagers can reproduce thanks to a potent virus, including two twin sisters struggling to find their place in this sexually-charged society.

Harmony and Melody are beautiful, intelligent, talented and all around perfect twins separated at birth; Harmony was raised in a strict Christian community and comes looking for Melody in an effort to save her soul and convince her to return to her town and live in purity with her. Meanwhile, Melody grew up with academic parents who have dollar signs in their eyes and have groomed her to become a lucrative breeding machine given her desirable traits. But at 16 – just two years from infertility – her agent has yet to find her a boy to ‘bump’ with. Just as Harmony shows up on the scene, however, a deal is stuck with superstar reproducer Jondoe – and a mistaken-identity caper ensues.

Megan McCafferty has my eternal admiration as the creator of the Jessica Darling books. Bumped is very different in subject matter, but
her talent for wordplay continues to shine through with no shortage of intentionally hilarious acronyms and slang (although the sheer number of  made-up terms she drops is excessive and somewhat grating). I wasn’t a fan of the open-ended ending, either, but it seems there’s a sequel in the works, so that, in my eyes, is forgivable.

So Much For That – Lionel Shriver

Summary: Shep Knacker’s dream of retiring to the Third World is torn to shreds when his wife Glynis reveals she has cancer, and needs him to stay put for health insurance purposes.

There is so much going on in this novel, it’s hard to know where to start. Everybody is unhappy and browbeaten and tough to like, from single-minded Shep who allows everyone from Glynis – who refuses to buy into his dream – to the useless Randy, to whom he sold the company he built from the ground up, and is now driving back into nothing, to walk over him. His mooching artist sister Beryl. His similarly dependent daughter Amelia. His withdrawn son Zach. His best friend Jackson, who seems to have inferior man syndrome (and oh, the action he takes in an effort to remedy that…) and rails on about the failures of government and capitalism to anyone who’ll listen.  And of course, prickly, lost Glynis herself, whose worst qualities are only brought out by her cancer.

I adore Shriver’s ambition and intensity, although her tendency to ramble on and propensity for long-winded, far-fetched dialogue detracts somewhat from the overall effect. The novel shines in depicting modern misery, in the nuances of marriages and relationships, particularly in relation to illness, and of course an indictment of the American healthcare industry, driven home by the simple device of starting each new chapter with Shep’s latest Merrill Lynch account balance. Meanwhile, it also tackles the dichotomy of moochers vs mugs – those who game the system, and those who play by the rules (guess who wins and who loses?). That’s largely delivered through Jackson’s monologues – subtle as a hammer – but also simply through Shep’s support of everybody around him. Thankfully, the end is most satisfying, despite him depleting his life savings to prolong Glynis’ existence. Worth a read.

5 thoughts on “100 in ’11: McCafferty, Bender and Shriver

  • Reply Little Miss Moneybags October 13, 2011 at 14:20

    I am so with you on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. That book freaked me right out and not in a good way.

  • Reply Sense October 13, 2011 at 18:37

    OK, you guys have to tell me what happens at the end of that book or I’m going to read it to find out myself. I’m not even kidding.

  • Reply 100 in ’11: Gabaldon, White and David | Musings of an Abstract Aucklander October 25, 2011 at 09:44

    […] was a rip-roarer from start to finish, albeit a little long. I wouldn’t compare it to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – which should never have seen the light of day in its final state – but a little more […]

  • Reply Review: Don’t Breathe a Word | Musings of an Abstract Aucklander April 19, 2012 at 08:52

    […] in terms of McMahon’s writing. It’s a little rushed (thankfully, it wasn’t quite The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and while the ending itself, I think, was a more than valid way to go, it certainly felt that the […]

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