The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
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On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, 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 cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.
I’m not really sure how to review this book, because I think your enjoyment of it is basically just going to come down to personal taste. It’s very surreal, and if that sort of writing appeals to you great, but if it doesn’t then this probably isn’t going to be the book for you.
I can’t really separate any single element of the book from the surrealism. You can tell from the synopsis that this isn’t your typical literary fiction, but when the tasting of emotions is much … odder than it comes across in the synopsis. It’s very weird, almost disturbing. And the book just gets more and more unusual as it goes, until the climactic moment when I was literally going, “Wait, what????”. It’s not bad, just very different.
The writing style is also a little strange. The lack of quotations, for one thing, is unusual. And that’s not to say there isn’t dialogue, Bender just didn’t feel the need to clarify with he saids, she saids, and quotation marks. The writing was very simplistic and matter-of-fact. Even moments of great turbulence are felt despite a rather bare writing style. Rose rarely tells you how she is feeling, just describes what she does and allows you to extrapolate from there.
Rose. Hm. I didn’t really connect with her. I guess I’m just used to rather precocious children in coming-of-age novels like this one. Rose, being completely mediocre, stands in stark contrast to these smart-mouthed prodigies. It was also disconcerting seeing the depression running rampant in her family from the eyes of a seven-year-old.
Because, to me, that’s what this book was really about. Depression. Anxiety. I don’t know if that’s what Bender intended, but that’s what I took away.
I love reading family dramas, but the family dynamics here were strained. Rose barely talks to her brother, Joseph. Her mother loves her, but not as much as she loves Joseph. And her dad is distant, barely knowing how to function as a parent. When Rose starts tasting people nobody will listen to her long enough to even attempt to understand what she was saying. Bender captured impeccably what it feels like to be the overlooked child.
Yet there were moments, many of them, that left me enchanted. I loved reading about George, Rose’s only real friend. I loved how Bender captured the small moments and feelings of real life. And I couldn’t help but chuckle at this utterly bizarre rationalization for why a middle schooler loves junk food so much.
I don’t know that I understood this book, if I’m being completely honest. Personally I really struggle to take “hidden meanings” from text, even when the author is being very clear. I could definitely tell that Bender was saying something, especially when it came to the brother, Joseph. But I just couldn’t catch on.
I absolutely and heartily recommend The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake to lovers of the surreal. If that’s something you’ve never read before, this might be a good book to introduce it. It’s short and light, and the surreal elements are not too bizarre or gross. And it’s definitely more accessible than others I have read.