Believe it or not, I love this book.
Perhaps “love” is a strong word for the conflicting emotions I feel. I went in expecting a different story, but rereads have shown the prose gets stronger with age. I appreciate what Bender does with her character’s emotions, even if the symbolism goes over my head.
So no, this book never betrayed me.
It betrayed my friend Laura.
That spring, nine of us traveled to Chehalis for a college mission trip. For our free day, we walked on the beach, bought ice cream, and hit up a book store. While Laura giggled at the serious titles, I stumbled onto this book:
A couple of things:
- I love anything with a birthday motif. I’ve bought MANY books because of promised birthday adventures. I’m just now noticing the similarities:
Maybe I’ve been collecting these books as a way to relive this reading experience? So far I’ve failed; I haven’t liked a single one of the above books.
- I get a sense of the story’s sadness from the cover, perhaps because of the creepy, looming shadow I just noticed. But the alternate cover?
Girl! It’s just cake! Chill!
Sadness? Cake? Magic? I didn’t care how much the book cost; I wanted it.
I showed this book to everyone in my group. Reactions ranged from “Huh,” to “THAT’S SO WEIRD.” (Conservative Christians have a low tolerance for whimsy.)
I passed the book to Laura.
To my surprise, she laughed. “That sounds HILARIOUS.”
“Let me know how it is!”
We were stuck together for the next week, so I agreed.
We went back to our lodgings. While everyone else made dinner, I locked myself in my room to read. I was too young for Aimee Bender’s brand of deep melancholy, but I found the story “enjoyable” and “interesting.”
The next day, Laura asked for an update each time we passed in the hall on the way to our respective projects. “How’s the book? Hysterical?”
I struggled to temper her expectations without shutting her down; more often than not, I smiled and said, “It’s great!”
“Can’t wait to read it!” Laura would call over her shoulder.
I finished the book sometime tthat night. I lay in my bed for as long as I was allowed, absorbing the Great Sadness of the World.
I handed Laura the book the next morning over breakfast. “It was good,” I said, still carrying the Great Sadness of the World. “I liked it.”
When friends say this to me, I assume a “but” is coming.
Laura wasn’t nearly as cynical as I am. “Great! I can’t wait! It looks SOOOOO funny!”
At this point, I’d started to have some dark thoughts. I’d spent five days with these people sharing meals and bathrooms and tools, listening to the same 20-song playlist for the whole of our 8-hour workday, hauling firewood to avoid another tense afternoon in the linen closet. I only had an hour or so to myself where I tried to squeeze in some quality reading time before my body shut down; even then I could heard my team members laughing and making fart noises in the hallway.
So when Laura insisted yet again that a book with “sadness” in the title would be a jolly good time, I did worse than snap: I refused to warn her. “HAHA, YEP, ENJOY!” I said, sprinting off to scarf down another Costco muffin.
I watched Laura over the next couple of days for signs that she was carrying the Great Sadness of the World. While we repainted some walls, I asked, “So…how’s the book?”
Laura’s personality was 90% positive adjectives. It was hard to get recommendations from her that weren’t “AWESOME” or “FANTASTIC” or “AMAZING.” Everything, from K-Pop to J. J. Abrams, astonished her. “It’s…interesting.”
I saw the betrayal on her face. I should have felt guilty. I didn’t. I still don’t.
She handed the book back to me without a word a day later.
“Is that the cake book?” a teammate called. “It looked SO WEIRD!”
Laura said nothing. I enjoyed a brief pocket of silence, my “weird” book shielding me from my teammates’ conversation.
I haven’t heard from Laura in years.