The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the story of a young girl, Rose Edelstein, who discovers one day that she can taste more in her food than its flavours. She can taste her mother’s restlessness and emptiness, she can taste if the cook was in a rush, or if he was angry. Over time, her special sense develops and allows her to taste minute traces that she comes to recognize and categorize so that she can identify the origins of ingredients as well as who combined them.
This is the basis of the story, but it’s not just about this magical ability. It’s also the story of a family and a childhood. We learn about Rose, her relationships with her brother, her father, her mother and with her brother’s best friend, we see her friendships come together and fall apart, and we see her as she begins looking towards an independent future while helping her family deal with an unexpected event.
We also get to see how Rose’s special ability impacts every area of her life, in both subtle and dramatic ways. It has the most impact on her relationship with her mother, who does most of the cooking for the family. Through her food, Rose sees everything about her – including the things that most children don’t (and shouldn’t). But it also changes how she navigates the world. From a practical standpoint, she has to learn which foods are safe to eat and which to avoid, but she also has to learn to process knowledge she doesn’t yet have the maturity to understand. And she has to do it alone, because how do you explain to disbelieving adults that you can tell just by eating one bite of food exactly how long it took them to bake, whether they had a good night’s sleep and how they really feel about their spouse?
It is Bender’s exploration of how this ability touches every aspect of Rose’s life that is the point of this story, not the ability itself. It’s a slow book, particularly for the first two thirds. I nearly gave up on it a few times, feeling that it was repetitive and didn’t really seem to be going anywhere. I’m glad I didn’t, because the last section of the book was by far my favourite. I can’t really tell you much of why without giving anything away, but while I found it hard to connect with the characters in the first two thirds of the novel, the last was quite the opposite.
What I liked most, looking back over the arc of the story, is Rose’s development as a character. I particularly liked that she didn’t become a typical teenager (partly because of her mysterious ability) and that her family life took precedence over her social life. This was a refreshing change from the vast majority of books about teenagers that seem to push parents and family into the wings, if not writing them out altogether.
While I enjoyed the ending, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who prefers plot-driven stories – particularly fast-paced ones. This will bore you. If you are a patient reader who likes quiet, gentle, slowly teased out character studies, then this is a book you will like. If you enjoy magical realism in any form, then the premise of this story may fascinate you. If you tend to have quirky taste in books, definitely give this one a try. I don’t think it’ll be one of my favourites of the year, but I think it will quietly creep into my mind, unbidden, for many years to come.
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.
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.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. It is heartbreaking and funny, wise and sad, and confirms Aimee Bender’s place as “a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language” (San Francisco Chronicle). – Goodreads
Book Title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
Published By: Anchor
Released: April 19, 2011 (originally June 1st 2010)
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Date Read: July 17-23, 2017