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.