The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Number of pages: 292
My copy: ebook from Kindle store
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, 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 cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.
I wasn’t aware of the ride I was in for the moment I cracked this book open. I just liked the blurb when I saw it, and got it, thinking it will be a somewhat humorous read, with all the references to food. I was expecting for a short discovery of Rose’s “talent” as a kid, then fast forward to her grown up years where she has grown up gracefully using her skills. I guess I was expecting a little bit of Pushing Daisies with a dash of Love the One You’re With and maybe even a bit of Twenties Girl wrapped in a delightful cover of a lemon cake slice.
But if there was anything I learned in life, it’s this: expectations are almost always never fulfilled. Most of the time, I’d get disappointed when that happens, but for this book, I’m glad my expectations were set aside, because The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a beautiful book. :)
Rose Edelstein is nobody special, at least not until the eve of her ninth birthday. When her mom baked her a lemon cake, and she tasted it, her world opened up in a way that she couldn’t understand why or how. Somehow, she can taste what the person who prepared the food felt while preparing the food. It’s a strange talent, which quickly became a curse for her because she knew she wouldn’t be able to escape knowing what other people felt, even if they don’t tell her. She felt the emptiness of her mom, the distraction of her dad and the slight anger of her brother. She felt the rush of the baker from the cookie shop, she felt the desperation of the baker’s girlfriend in the sandwich she tasted. Rose felt the love that her friend Emma’s family had for her. She also felt even what the people who prepared the raw ingredient of the food felt like: the thirst of the grape pickers from the raisins, the rudeness of the parsley farmer. She could taste where the food came from, how far it traveled, how fresh it was and the metallic, blessedly blank taste of factory-prepared food. Rose is a food genius, in a way, but it would have only been a blessing if Rose asked for it.
But Rose didn’t. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, we get to see Rose’s journey from the innocent kid to the girl wary of food and scared of eating what others prepared. It’s not easy to summarize this book because there were so many layers into it. It wasn’t just about the food, but it was also about Rose. Then it wasn’t always about Rose but about her family. Within her family, there were little secrets and stories too — her mom and dad’s history, her mother’s emptiness, her dad’s routine with everyday life including insurance quotes and her brother’s strangeness. There was even a hint of love with her brother’s friend George, but then it also wasn’t. This book is complicated, yet simple. Charming, yet haunting. Sad, but hopeful, too.
I can’t say anything more without spoiling anything, but I hope you take my word for it: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a beautiful read. Rose is a memorable character, one that I found myself rooting for and loving up until the end. Please, if you decide to read this, look past the lack of quotation marks (it kind of drove me crazy at first but I got used to it), and stick to it up to the end. Some parts may not make sense, but I guess it mirrors Rose’s predicament: we’ll never be able to make sense why she does what she does, but what’s important is she chose to live despite the “curse” her gift brings.