‘In "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" Aimee Bender has created a world where nothing is quite as it seems. From a man suffering from reverse evolution to a lonely wife who waits for her husband to return from war; to a small town where one girl has a hand made of fire and the other has a hand made of ice. These stories of men and women whose lives are shaped and sometimes twisted by the power of extraordinary desires take us to a place far beyond the imagination.’
‘The Girl in the Flammable Skirt’ is a selection of short stories by Aimee Bender, the very talented authoress of ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ and ‘An Invisible Sign of My Own’.
The anthology is divided into three sections, each containing either five or six stories. There is a great deal of variety in both tone and setting within the collection, and Bender’s characters span all walks of life.
My favourite of the stories was probably the first, called ‘The Rememberer’, which describes a woman’s feelings as she discovers her lover is experiencing reverse evolution. A truly bizarre idea, but it made good reading!
I’ve read two of Bender’s previous novels, but hadn’t tried her short stories before. To be honest, short stories aren’t something I naturally veer towards. Perhaps this is because characterisation is so important to me, and you just can’t explore a character in as much depth in a few thousand words as you can in a full length novel.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other works by Bender. One of the things I really like about this author’s writing is how unusual her ideas are. Her work is completely original. However, in this case, I found the majority of the tales in the anthology to be a little too strange for me, although I liked many of the concepts behind the stories.
Whilst very beautifully written, and often captivating, these stories are just not really my cup of tea.
3 and a half stars
‘When Mona Gray is ten, her father contracts a mysterious illness. His gradual withdrawal from everyday life marks a similar change in Mona, who removes herself from anything - or anyone - that might bring her happiness. Numbers provide a kind of solace, and help her make sense of the world: she counts words in her head, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another. When she becomes a maths teacher, Mona delights her pupils by encouraging them to find objects that take the form of numbers. But when 7-year-old Lisa appears with a zero that displays real turmoil, Mona knows that in order to help a person in pain, she needs to find a way to connect with the world she has been afraid of for so long. "An Invisible Sign of my Own" is a story about children and adults, and how we protect ourselves from the things we fear the most. It is about superstition and logic and the big muddy area in between. It is written with the same eloquence and flair that characterizes "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake", this novel marks the sign of a true original in contemporary fiction.’
Mona Grey is a maths teacher obsessed with numbers. She uses her fascination to hide from the reality of her life, in which her father is very ill with a mystery illness. Mona spends her time seemingly desperate to curtail any chance of happiness or success she has, whether by dropping out of the running team when she showed promise, or deliberately sabotaging her romantic life. It’s in bonding and caring for others that Mona can find a way out of her unhappiness, but only if she can allow herself to let them become close to her.
I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, but I did find Mona interesting; she was, to be blunt, fairly loopy – so much so in fact that I sometimes doubted the sense of allowing her to work in a school. I couldn’t help but like her, despite becoming, on occasion, completely exasperated by her. I particularly liked the use of flashbacks throughout the book, which gradually helped me to understand Mona and her past.
In my opinion the supporting characters lacked oomph, particularly Mona’s mother and father. This was possibly because the protagonist shone so brightly, they paled beside her. I wanted more from them. And the children Mona teaches seemed to be nothing short of disturbed: there didn’t seem to be one regular one amongst them!
Unfortunately, this book had nowhere near the hold on me that Benders last work ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ had, which I found surprising as in a lot of ways they are very similar. They both follow the fortunes of a young American woman who is ‘different’ inwardly, but doesn’t really show it on the outside, and is concerned about a close family member. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the story, but rather that I had no trouble putting it down and wasn’t desperate to pick it up again.
‘An Invisible Sign of My Own’ was certainly an unusual read, and it really stood out from other recent publications. Aimee Bender specialises in the bizarre, a trait which makes her stories completely unique, and I’d encourage readers to give her a try. Her writing style is very, very good, with decent pace, and despite my reservations, I found this very readable.
3 and a half stars
'On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal. Rose’s gift forces her to confront the truth behind her family’s emotions – her mother’s sadness, her father’s detachment and her brother’s clash with the world. But as Rose grows up, she learns that there are some secrets even her taste buds cannot discern. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is about the pain of loving those whom you know too much about, and the secrets that exist within every family. At once profound, funny, wise and sad, this is a novel to savour.'
The basic premise of ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ is a simple one: the heroine Rose Edelstein has a bizarre ‘gift’- she can taste people’s emotions in the food they cook. Rose isn’t too enamoured with her ability and spends her life searching for factory processed food, the less natural the better, just so she can get away from the complexity of what she can taste in regular food.
What Rose doesn’t realise for a long time is that she isn’t the only unusual member of her family. When her elder brother starts mysteriously disappearing it’s time for Rose to grow up rather quickly and learn that even when you know what another person is feeling, you’re not always able to help them.
To be honest I wasn’t sure at all what to expect when I began reading this book, but was extremely pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily I became absorbed in Rose and her life. I’d never heard of the author Aimee Bender before, but was very impressed by the uniqueness of her plot and the ease of her writing style.
I adored Rose from the very first page. Being with her when she first experiences her special ability, and knowing how shocking she finds it, really helped me to understand Rose’s actions later in the story. She was a very strong, independent character, and reading about her coming to terms with her talent was fascinating.
For me, having a supernatural element in a plotline more often than not doesn’t quite work; it can feel forced and out of place. However, when the paranormal is dealt with well, as it is here, it can be captivating and a wonderful way to explore the human psyche. What I found very intriguing in this novel was that Bender didn’t go into detail about why or how some things are possible, but rather focused on how they affected her characters’ lives and relationships.
‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ is a story that will stay with me for a long time and that I truly treasured reading. Its freshness and innovativeness was apparent from the very first page and Rose and her situation were captivating. In short, I loved it.