The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, is an odd book. I am not a big fan of magical realism, and I think I would put this book in that category (or maybe science fiction). It’s about the Edelstein family – Rose (8 when the book opens), her distant and antisocial older brother Joe, and her parents, who have their own issues. Rose realizes on her ninth birthday that she has a special talent – she can eat food and determine the emotional state of the person who prepared it. Eating the birthday cake her mother has prepared for her, she detects intense sadness on her mother’s part, a burden that she carries around for years to come.
Rose tries to tell her mother and brother about her “gift”, but they either don’t understand it (her mother) or don’t care enough to listen (Joseph). The whole family is basically dysfunctional because of their intense self-absorption; no one seems to pay enough attention to the others to notice how lonely they each are. Their conversations with each other are flat and unexpressive, and they rarely express love or even affection, except for Rose’s mother’s deep, almost suffocating love for her son.
Rose tries to come to terms with her sixth sense, but finds that she can only enjoy food when it is so processed that its preparation is undetectable. But I found her journey to this realization to be one of the great weaknesses of Bender’s book. I’d love to have learned more about the people whose emotions Rose experiences in their food. Instead we learn that salads are angry or that a cupcake may be frustrated… and that’s that. Even Rose’s mother’s sadness is underexplored. We get a lot of background about Rose’s parents’ relationship and how they met and married, but the sadness isn’t really convincing without more explanation.
Then there’s Joe, Rose’s resentful, science-obsessed older brother who barely gives her the time of day. It turns out that Joe also has a special talent – he can make himself disappear. Rose lives her life in fear that he will disappear permanently, though it’s not like they had much of a relationship for her to miss. And when Joe does disappear, her mother is very upset, and her father is concerned… but that’s it. It is not until the end of the book that the reader gets any sense for the impact Joe’s disappearance has on his parents, or what they did about it.
This book just wasn’t for me. The writing was lyrical and poetic, almost heartbreakingly beautiful at times. But the gaping holes in the story and the coldness and flat affect of the characters’ dialogue made the story even less believable. I think there were a lot of missed opportunities for Bender to explore what Rose learned about the people who prepared her food, but she rarely went beyond “peas that were picked by desperate immigrants” or “organic turkey from a farm in Wisconsin”. Ultimately, everyone in the book was so devoid of emotion that I just couldn’t care about what was happening to them.
I listened to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on audio, narrated by the author. I usually love author narration, but Bender’s voice is flat and unexpressive (which may be why I found her characters to be so as well). The audio was slow and mellow, and I found my mind wandering as I listened (never a good sign). But when I did pick up the book from time to time, I still found it lacking, so the audio wasn’t totally to blame.
This book got decent reviews when it came out; I’d love to hear from EDIWTB readers who enjoyed it. What did you like about it? What did I miss?