Reading the early pages of Aimee Bender’s novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I couldn’t help but wonder “where is she going with this?”
As those of have read – or read of – this frequently-reviewed novel know, the book opens with 8-year-old Rose Edelstein and her family: Mom, Dad, and brother Joseph. A not-too-happy family, but not that miserable or unusual, either. Mom takes a practice run at Rose’s birthday cake (lemon with chocolate icing), and Rose tastes not only lemons, sugar and chocolate, but a hollowness, a kind of despair, that chokes her. It becomes clear that poor Rose can taste the emotions of the person who prepared the food, whether it’s her own mother in the family kitchen or one of the cooks in the school lunchroom. Food that’s okay: factory-made food, where no one person has much of a hand in any particular aspect of it.
Rose manages. I note that her ability is a burden – there seems to be a lot of terribly unhappy people. Only the sandwiches packed by her best friend’s mother are light-hearted… thank heavens she shares! It’s at this point that I’m thinking, “How in the world is this going to work out?”
The good news is that Bender does have someplace to take it. Rose’s brother has a talent, as well – a talent for disappearing. And as difficult as her ability is for her, it’s nothing compared to the disconnection with life that affects Joseph as he literally becomes one with the furniture. We find that this comes down with the Edelstein lineage through Dad, whose apparent fear of hospitals turns out to be the feeling that he could do something amazing, if he would only enter the building.
Bender escapes the trap of the too-neat ending: Rose does not end up with the nice, science-minded friend of her brother. He’s attractive, he cares for her, and he marries someone else. And Rose does not outgrow the pain of her talent, but does learn to learn from it and to take charge of the kitchen, both metaphorically and literally.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is an imaginative, evocative book, although a bit depressing. I’ll look for more in the future from the author, even though I can’t give this novel a hearty recommendation.
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