Aimee Bender – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
66. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (2010)
Length: 294 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Started: 11 June 2010
Finished: 12 June 2010
Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I thought the premise sounded excellent.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 09 April 2010.
Now I’m curious
as to what the food that I
cook really tastes like.
Summary: Rose Edelstein requested that the cake for her ninth birthday be her favorite: lemon-chocolate cake. When she sneaks a piece of her cake the night before, she discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake… and that her seemingly loving, cheerful, active mother is harboring a deep well of hollowness and despair. From that point onward, food becomes a curse for Rose, unable to eat a meal without tasting the secret emotions of the person who made it. Through food, Rose unwillingly learns the secrets of her family that no child should be burdened with: her mother’s attempts to fill the emptiness inside her, her father’s emotional and physical detachment from his family, her older brother’s increasing isolation. But she also learns that her family harbors secrets deeper than other families… secrets that are too deep even to taste.
Review: I will put up with a lot for a book with a good premise, and this one had a great one. It’s sort of the anti-Like Water for Chocolate; instead of one girl sending messages through food to everyone else, it’s one girl receiving all of the messages that everyone else didn’t even know they were sending. For that reason, it’s not really a book for foodies: for Rose, the experience of food is a curse, not a blessing, and reading this book was enough to kill my appetite for a while (which is problematic, considering I normally do a lot of good reading over meals.) A quote on the first page of the ARC suggests that this book is the antidote to a bad day or a bad year, but I had the complete opposite reaction: the idea of one girl being a receptacle for so much pain and dysfunction and so many secrets, and completely unable to avoid it… that was more than a little bit of a downer. I mean, sadness in a book is fine, and this story definitely earns its weight, but it is not the cute and light book promised by the bright colors of the cover.
The writing itself was full and lovely, not heavy, but still full of the flavors and emotions that make up the story, to the point where you can almost imagine what a cake full of sadness would taste like. The prose was smooth enough that I was (almost) able to overlook the complete lack of quotation marks, which normally drives me absolutely bonkers. It did make some of the conversations hard to follow, though. (For example, does the sentence Yes, he’s here, she said, finally. mean She said: “Yes, he’s here, finally.” or She finally said: “Yes, he’s here.”?)
However, despite the book’s fantastic premise and lovely prose, it felt like there was a piece missing from the story. I can’t put my finger quite on what that missing element was, but it’s definitely there, just like the hole in the middle of Amy’s chocolate lemon cake. I think part of it might be that the book gets really strange in the middle, which left me hoping that we’d get a good explanation for things, but the resolution, when it comes, wasn’t really much of a resolution at all. The story attempts to wrap things up, but the end is not nearly as rich and as round as the beginning, and it makes the whole thing feel a little off-balance, and not quite as satisfying as I’d been hoping.
As a final thought, I absolutely love lemon desserts, and was going to make a lemon cake to go along with this review, but now I’m worried that it’s going to taste like sadness and emptiness. If it turns out that this book has ruined lemon cake for me forever, I will have to come back and rethink my rating. Hrmph. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I think fans of literary fiction who are willing to deal with a little bit of magical-realism weirdness in their novels will probably have the best time with this book.
First Line: It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 57: “The same light he took and folded into rock walls to hide in the beveled sharp edges of topaz crystal and schorl.” – a black tourmaline.
- p. 96: “She told us everything about the carpentry co-op, which had managed to hold and even extend her interest; her skills had advanced fast in four years, and she talked about cabinetry, and cutting rabbets, and of the various pitfalls and triumphs involved in ripping a board with a table saw.” – a deep notch formed in or near one edge of a board, framing timber, etc., so that something else can be fitted into it or so that a door or the like can be closed against it.
- p. 143: “I hand-delivered the envelope into Joseph’s lap, where he was sitting outside reading a book on Kepler and the arrival of new enlightenment with the orbital change of thinking. Elliptical orbits, perihelions, equal areas in equal time.” – the point in the orbit of a planet or comet at which it is nearest to the sun.
**All quotes are taken from an Advance Reader’s Copy and may not reflect the final published text.**