The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

particularsadnesslemoncakeOn the eve of her ninth birthday, 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.

All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal.

Rose’s gift forces her to  confront the truth behind her family’s emotions — her mother’s sadness, her father’s detachment and her brother’s clash with the world. But as Rose grows up, she learns that there are some secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

First published: 2010

My parents gave me The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake when they got back from a weekend trip a few years ago. They bought it mainly as a little joke, since I had been baking a lemon cake on the day they left for the trip. Before I’d even read the book I had already fallen in love with it: the cover was beautiful, the title had “lemon cake” in it (which made me a bit more enthusiastic than I’d like to admit) and the idea that by tasting a cake you could taste someone’s emotions was just an amazing concept for a story, I thought.

However, the novel didn’t quite live up to my (admittedly high) expectations.

The first thing that really bugged me when I started reading, and which kept bugging me throughout the story, is the fact that Aimee Bender does not use any quotation marks around speeches. This would not be that big of a deal if she decided to use other punctuation to indicate a character is speaking, but she didn’t. It might seem like a minor annoyance but lack of punctuation bothers me a lot, maybe more than it should. To illustrate my point, here’s a little fragment of a conversation in the book:

Don’t you see? I said to Dad.
See what?
I pointed at Mom.
Lane, he said. Yes. I see a beautiful woman.

You still get what is meant, you know “Don’t you see?” is spoken, and “I said to Dad” is part of the narrative, but the lack of quotation marks is distracting (and sometimes a bit confusing) nonetheless.

Which is a pity, really, because for me this took the focus away from the writing itself, which is truly lovely. In fact, Bender’s writing style is the only aspect of this novel that did live up to my expectations. It’s dreamy but sharp at the same time. It isn’t overly wordy but describes emotions, acts and surroundings with exactly the right amount of detail.

It’s just the story that isn’t at all how I pictured it. This doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but it was with this novel. The concept of the story has so much potential — a little girl who can taste emotions when eating food, it’s brilliant! In theory, that is, because Bender doesn’t take the story anywhere. The true theme of the novel is family, and how every family knows its troubles and struggles. However, by the end of the novel none of these problems are resolved — you don’t get any closure as a reader. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that Rose doesn’t get to know any form of happiness during the time of her life we get to follow her (which is from her ninth birthday to some time after her graduation from high school).

This would have been okay: I would have been able to accept the fact that this novel is just somewhat depressing. However, without wanting to spoil anything, towards the end of the novel it is revealed that Rose’s brother, Joseph, also has some kind of ‘supernatural ability’. This ability doesn’t add anything to the story and is just plain weird, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I love a book that’s bit quirky or different — but it has to lead somewhere, it has to be relevant in some way or another.

The thing is, in spite of all this, I did enjoy reading the book. Yes, the lack of punctuation bothered me, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished it that I became rather annoyed with the story.

So, if you’re one for a quirky story, I can recommend this novel, but I do so with some reservations.

2.5 Okay With It

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Hi! I'm Anne and I love reading, baking and writing about both of those things. Welcome!

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