Saturday, January 1, 2011

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

For numerous reasons too tedious to mention (work, and lots of it), I've been a neglectful blogger of late - not to mention a neglectful reader, having started, but not actually finished, a number of books (and blog posts) over the past few months. And, once off track, it's very difficult to get back on track - which is why it's so awesome to have wonderful blogging friends like Col over at ColReads, who suggested simul-blogging on the same book on the same day - today.

Deadlines - that I can handle.* The guilt of letting down a friend - that I can't handle.

This, on this first day of a shining New Year, I have finally finished this first of hopefully many reviews and posts - and when you're finished, go check out Col's review of the same book on her blog.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, is a unique and rather odd book. The central character, Rose, is a girl with an unusual ability: When she eats, she can taste the emotions of the people who were involved in making the food at every level. More specifically, she can taste the emotions of each living being involved in the food's production, from the sad cow at the dairy farm, to the suffering migrant workers who pick the fruit, to the bored factory workers who assemble the product, or more strongly, to the home cook who assembles the ingredients into a meal.

Although there's a lot of potential here for a Fast Food Nation novel, that's not at all where the story is headed. Rose's story is focused on her family, as she first discovers her skill in a piece of lemon birthday cake, baked by her mother and filled with a desperate yearning for love that is not visible nor comprehensible to a ten-year-old child.

Rose is overwhelmed with the insights she experiences when eating, not only from her own mother's pain, but from the resentment Rose feels when she tastes the adoring maternal love in her best friend's sandwich. She recoils from food, seeking solace in factory-made products from vending machines which have a mostly metallic, but relatively emotionless, tang. So too does Rose recoil from people, avoiding friendships and experiencing challenging relationships in her home - having to conceal the secret of her mother's affair, which Rose discovers eating dinner one night; spitting out her father's distracted, unpalatable butterscotch pudding, and her brother's blank, grainy toast.

The style of writing is evocative, which it must be to carry a story about taste successfully. I found myself swept away by some of the descriptive passages, such as the sequence in which she holds the hand of George, her brother's friend, for safety when crossing the street:

Fingers, holding back. The sun. More clustery vines of bougainvillea draping over the windows in bulges of dark pink. His warm palm. An orange tabby lounging on the sidewalk. People in torn black t-shirts sitting and smoking on the steps. The city, opening up.
We hit the sidewalk, and dropped hands. How I wished, right then, that the whole world was a street.
One of the unusual aspects of the writing is that it omits the use of quotation marks, which many readers on the Barnes and Noble website found frustrating or annoying. To me, this also helped to give the novel its own flavor, which is of a young girl telling you her story - not in a formal way, but informally, confidentially. Rose does not share her secret with most people, because the first few people she tells don't believe her. The reader is thus drawn in to her private confidences.

The reader must also suspend a great deal of disbelief as the book veers off into fantasy, exploring the tale of Rose's brother, a distant creature who begins to mysteriously disappear for ever-increasing periods. When the explanation is slowly revealed, Rose can barely believe nor describe what she sees - it is too bizarre and fantastic. Telling the story literally, as Rose does, is jarring - the reader is as incredulous as she is.

What fascinated me most in Lemon Cake was the way it explored the transitive power of objects. One  interesting side story concerns Rose's grandmother. The family never sees her, but she continuously sends them odd objects from her home - as though she is mailing all her things to them, a few objects at a time, before she dies. The objects are perplexing and confuse the family - why mail this worthless stuff? There is clearly some point to it that they cannot quite grasp.

This contrasts neatly with Rose's ability  to comprehend others' emotions through their food - but the result is the same, in that the knowledge alienates her from them nearly as much as the incomprehensible packages increase the emotional  gulf between the family and the grandmother.

Overall, I enjoyed Lemon Cake, but as with most unique things - it's not for everyone. It left more questions than it answered and often drifted along, seemingly in no particular direction. I enjoyed the writing and characters, but found the book mostly compelling for the questions and ideas it presented, rather than the narrative itself.

* Like every other deadline I've ever met, completed in a last minute scramble.


  1. This book sounds intriguing but too sad for me right now. You might enjoy "Like Water for Chocolate", written about 20 (?) years ago that also explores the mystical, emotional, evocative power of food.

  2. Debbie is right -- I totally saw Lemon Cake in that same vein of "magic realism" as Like Water for Chocolate. But it wasn't as emotionally satisfying as Laura Esquivel's book for me!

  3. I liked it a lot too, for the magic realism, the writing and Rose, who I thought was a wonderful character.

  4. I bought the book, based on your review. I LOVED it! It's fantastic!
    Do you know other books of this sort that combine food into the plot?


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