Title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
No. of Pages: 292
Genre: Magical Realism
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 1 June 2010
“On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming 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. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.”
My Thoughts: I finished reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake several weeks ago and have been putting off writing this review since then because I struggled to organize my thoughts about this mysterious little book into coherent sentences. I cannot say that my thoughts are any more cogent now than they were last week, but I can put off writing this review no longer. So, here I go. Reader, you have been warned.
My first impression upon finishing this book was an explicative-laced rant, in my mind of course, on how weird the story is and how it ends on such a down note and why-oh-why did this win any recognition of any sort by anyone because HOLY SHIT this book is just bizarre. Then I started thinking that this reaction is exactly the point, which then evolved into the thought that my reaction is indicative of something else but just what was still alluding me. Then I waffled back to the initial reaction of just how strange the story is. Then, I drooled over the front cover because cake. Except, who makes a lemon cake with chocolate frosting? That cake looks gorgeously tasty though, so I am going to pretend that it is a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Now I want cake. But wait…chocolate and lemon. There is something there. I almost have it…
All of that insight into my thought process over the past few weeks is just one clue that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is not a novel you can take at face value, nor is it a novel for passive readers. It requires…no, it demands reflection and interpretation. There is nothing light and easy about Rose’s story, even though the cover as well as the synopsis make it feel like a whimsical one. Yet, as disappointing as this all is, the fact that it is not a light-hearted novel is okay because the one thing you take away from the story is empathy.
Here is what I realized as I tried to make sense of Rose’s “gift” and that of her brother’s. Focus less on the gifts themselves and more on what they represent. Their representation is best seen through Joseph, Rose’s aloof brother who would rather be alone than socialize with anyone. It is painful for me to admit that even though I recognized that Joseph would probably register on the Autism spectrum, I lost sight of that fact as his special talents became more of Rose’s focus even though the two are directly related. Again however, this is exactly the point of the story as I see it. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake takes a difficult subject and makes it more palatable by wrapping it up as a special gift that certain family members have. Only then does the subject lose its subjectivity and stigma.
In that context then The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake becomes something entirely different. Instead of me wanting to toss it across the room as garbage, I recognize the brilliance in Ms. Bender’s accomplishments within her novel. It allows readers to put themselves into Rose’s and her family’s shoes to experience how torturous “normal” life can be for someone whose brain is wired a bit differently from everyone else. We no longer have to imagine the problems even the most basic act like eating can pose for people because Ms. Bender makes the reader Rose. We experience what she experiences and are with her as she desperately tries to find ways to survive without losing her mind to the sensory overload each bite of food can bring. It is a spectacular use of magical realism as it gives you the gift of empathy for your fellow man.
This is not to say that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a perfect story, for it is not. There are some continuity issues with Rose’s gift that will cause some consternation. There is also a considerable lack of quotation marks to denote dialogue. For those who like their dialogue with appropriate punctuation, this could be a deal-breaker.
However, for me, these were minor issues that in no way diminish the effectiveness of the story itself. After stewing on it for so long, I walk away from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake with a sense of wonder at the emotions Ms. Bender was able to evoke and marvel at her ability to write a novel that is not easy to ignore. For, while it would have been far easier for me to write a short review after I finished it detailing how the story is garbage, I could not do so. Instead, there was that niggling sense I was missing something that prevented me from taking the easy way. The reward is worth the wait, as my appreciation for this quirky but ultimately quite sad story has grown tenfold now that I understand its importance.
Great review, Michelle! This is one I’ve looked at a lot but always assumed was light. I think I would have had the same initial reaction. Now if I pick it up, knowing what to expect, I think I will quite like it.
I think knowing that it is not as light as it seems is half the battle. It does go in a very weird direction towards the end, but it is magical realism. I figure that all magical realism is weird at some point in time. I will be curious to find out if you like it should you read it.
I have a really difficult time “getting” magical realism, so for that reason this book just did not work for me. But I love your analysis of it and you got a LOT more from it than I did. Even though it’s been years since I read it, when I look at it how you did, I can appreciate it a bit more.
Thanks, Heather! I struggle with magical realism too and tend to avoid it. I’m not certain why I was so willing to stick with this one and spent so long mulling it over. That is not like me at all.
I read this book a few years ago and loved it, but it’s definitely one I always forget to talk about when people ask me about what books I liked, and I don’t know why.
Thanks for the review (which was more well thought out than your intro suggests you believe), and the reminder of this story’s existence!
I have heard a lot about this book. I just never got around to reading it… Maybe one day!
I don’t think there is any urgency to reading it!
I love how your review comes all back around. I think I can safely take this off my TBR for now – while I appreciate your review and knowing there is a reward to be found, this doesn’t sound like the book I was hoping it would be.
I think this is one of those books a lot of people hoped would be amazing and just wasn’t. If I weren’t so stubborn and convinced that there was more to the book than I initially took away from it, I would have been that much more upset. I can’t really recommend it either because of that. I think it is wise to set it aside for now.
I didn’t like this book at all. It started out okay, though I wanted it to get far more in depth, and then once the chair legs started happening, I wanted to just throw up my hands and rant. I felt like the book walked too fine a line between trying to be literary but not getting deep enough, and having an interesting fantasy-laden story but not story enough. I felt like it needed to pick a direction and go there all the way, not just waffle around in the shallow end of the pool. :/
I had the same reaction that you did, but there was something about it that I could not let go. This review is what I came up with to help me put the book to rest. For right or wrong.
Not what I was expecting at all from this book. It is very deceiving with that cover! I love when a book leaves you with so many emotions, good and bad. For me that just means the author did a fantastic job in their writing if I feel that strongly.
Me too. I was not certain what to expect after the first chapter, and I am still not certain if my interpretation is at all close to what Bender wanted. Still, you are absolutely correct that it definitely made a big impression.