Unusual, unique, bizarre, strange, weird. When I went to my local library’s book discussion on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, these were just a few of the words used to describe the novel. The group of about eight women was split on whether or not they liked the novel; it seems that people either love it or hate it. I was one of the ones who loved it.
At 9 years old, Rose discovers that she can taste the emotions of the cook in the food that she eats when her mother bakes her a special lemon cake with chocolate frosting (from scratch!) for her birthday, and she is so overwhelmed with a sense of despair when she eats a piece that she can’t bear to eat more. OK, so now you understand why this book is described as unusual, right? But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Rose’s older brother, Joseph, has problems of his own, also of the unusual variety, that Rose doesn’t understand until she is much older. Although it’s not apparent from the inside cover blurb, the novel is as much about Joseph as it is about Rose, though it is told from Rose’s perspective.
At its heart, despite its novelties, this novel is about family relationships. Rose’s “talent” means that she learns far more than she wants to know about not only her family but strangers as well. For instance, learning that her cheerful, loving mother is depressed and feels hollow inside is a tough thing for a 9-year old girl to deal with. Even the school cafeteria is fraught with danger for Rose, as eating food prepared by an angry food service employee leaves her with anger she can neither control or easily get rid of.
Rose finds ways to deal with her “special talent,” but she also learns it’s best to keep it secret, so she grows up in a fairly isolated existence, making her family even more important to her. Her mother adores Joseph, but he obviously has some serious problems of his own that keep him at arm’s length from the rest of his family. As Rose grows up, she learns more about her brother and herself – and tries not to learn too much about her parents through their cooking.
I was surprised to find that the author focused almost as much attention on Joseph as she did on Rose in this novel, and I didn’t understand why until the very end. Some questions are never answered, but there is a satisfying conclusion – and some hope – for Rose. I was able to suspend disbelief and just accept Rose’s strange talent, but the bizarre problems of Rose and her brother were just too weird for some readers. I think it is best to go into this novel understanding that it is unusual so that you can focus on the wonderful writing and the emotional depth of the story and its characters. I am glad to have met Rose and grateful that I can enjoy my food with taking on the emotions of the cook, though it does make me wonder what my family would taste in my cooking.
292 pages, DoubledayP.S. One of the women in the book discussion brought in a lemon cake with chocolate frosting to share, as long as we promised not to read her emotions from it!