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Aimee Bender – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

June 16, 2010

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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bibliophile by the Sea, Booking Mama, Seriously Reading
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

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.**

27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 4:28 am

    I’ve read several reviews of this book and want to read it, but think I will probably need to be in the right frame of mind in order to fully appreciate it. That means it will likely be later in the year before I take the plunge. I was attracted to the premise, but wondered about the ability of someone to taste emotion. Thanks for sharing.

    • June 23, 2010 11:39 am

      Kay – The whole “tasting emotion” thing is strange, but Bender did a very nice job of describing it so that it was understandable and felt like it could happen.

  2. June 16, 2010 6:35 am

    Oh, I don’t understand why people don’t use quotation marks. I think without a fairly compelling reason to avoid them (your first-person narrator doesn’t know about them, for instance), they should always be used.

    • June 23, 2010 11:40 am

      Jenny – I agree! At least Bender sets off lines of dialogue in their own paragraphs in the normal way. When they’re all lumped together AND there are no quotation marks, that’s when I start tearing my hair out.

  3. June 16, 2010 8:29 am

    Oh, I so agree with you on quotation marks! Then again, I figure you haven’t read Blindness by Jose Saramago yet :)

    I like the thought of the anti-Like Water for Chocolate. I’d like to imagine that cake full of sadness you mentioned. But reading your thoughts on this one, I think one should prepare for the sadness with every bite of the food involved. To think I was particularly enamored of the thought of a lemon chocolate cake!

    • June 23, 2010 11:43 am

      Lightheaded – I read about 40% of Blindness last year, actually. Well, really, I listened to it, was totally put off by the bleak horribleness, then tried reading it to see if I could stomach it better in print vs. in audio… then got to three consecutive pages with no paragraph breaks and put it down for good. Cormac McCarthy, also, is another author I can’t read in print form. Punctuation exists for a reason!

  4. June 16, 2010 9:08 am

    …no quotation marks?

    You are a much braver woman than I.

    • October 26, 2010 7:40 pm

      I am in the middle of reading this book and the no quotation marks IS driving me bonkers. I am about to abandon it because it is hard to follow. Of course, I am reading it digitally, and they are not set off as regularly by new paragraphs, so it is hard to follow!

  5. June 16, 2010 9:42 am

    I am like you – I will put up with a lot for a good premise. But think about what a good book this would make for book clubs, since so many make food that goes with the theme of the book. Lemon chocolate cake: need to be in such a book club!

    • June 23, 2010 11:44 am

      rhapsody – This would be a very good book club book… plenty of appropriate food to be made, and having other people with which to discuss/puzzle out the ending would be very helpful.

  6. June 16, 2010 1:08 pm

    the premise definitely sounded interesting and i had it on my radar, but i had no idea that the book wasn’t going to be lighthearted. (the cover really is deceiving) i think kay is right about having to be in the mood to read it.

    • June 23, 2010 11:46 am

      toothy – I guess I should have guessed from the fact that the lemon chocolate cake tastes of sadness and emptiness, but those darn pastels and swirly font totally fooled me.

  7. June 16, 2010 3:03 pm

    I really want this book. I love any form of magical realism and I know this one will be right for me.

    • June 23, 2010 11:46 am

      vivienne – I hope you get the chance to check it out soon, then!

  8. June 17, 2010 1:11 am

    Well if that’s not something to give someone an eating disorder then I don’t know what is!

    • June 23, 2010 11:54 am

      Ladytink – Hah! She actually gets questioned by the school nurse about whether or not she’s got an eating disorder! (…which, technically I guess she does have an eating disorder, just not one that’s particularly common.)

  9. June 18, 2010 1:46 pm

    This is the first negative review I’ve seen for this, but I’m SUPER glad to be warned about the lack of quotation marks, that annoys me about 95% of the time.

    • June 23, 2010 11:55 am

      Jen – It wasn’t really a negative review; on the whole I liked the book and am glad I read it, it just had a few parts that didn’t quite work for me.

  10. June 18, 2010 10:09 pm

    I had such high hopes for this book and all of the reviews I’ve read have said it doesn’t live up to its premise.

    • June 23, 2010 11:56 am

      bermudaonion – It’s true that it doesn’t quite get there, but it definitely shows that Bender’s got talent; I’ll be interested to read her next book and see how she grows as an author.

  11. June 19, 2010 10:58 am

    That’s the best recommendation line I’ve ever read! I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for the heads up.

    • June 23, 2010 11:58 am

      Jessica – There’s more magical realism weirdness to this book than just the ability to taste emotions in food, and I think someone who was expecting straight-up literary fiction would get to some of those parts and be like “…the hell?!?” if they were not forewarned.

  12. Erlinda permalink
    July 11, 2010 8:46 pm

    I was intrigued by a review of this book, and put it on my “mental” TBR list. When I finally remembered the title and author, I made the purchase. The novel reminded me a lot of “Like Water for Chocolate,” and I kept being reminded of an old saying, “Don’t cook when you are angry or sad. The pots won’t set.” I must admit that I enjoyed the book very much. (I devoured it! Sorry!) I did get confused toward the end of the story about what was going on with a relative. (Don’t want to give it away.) I think I read it too fast, because I had to read the last 40 or so pages twice. Then a third time to make sure I was reading what I read. Ahh! Magical realism. I think I like it.

  13. Katrina David permalink
    July 25, 2010 9:36 pm

    i just finished reading this book and instantly began to seek reviews on what other people thought about it. I was also attracted to the premise of this story, but by the end, I felt sort of unsettled with the story. Like you, the lack of quotation marks for the dialogue troubled me. It may seem odd, but while I’m reading, things like that bother me. I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending and I felt as though it didn’t resolve many of the subplots. I wish I could get into detail without spoiling the book for anyone reading this. Though I understand the idea of magical-realism, I just felt as though there were really no explanations and I wanted some. All in all, it was a good book. I still really like the premise of the story but I guess I was just expecting a little bit more, and something a tad different than what was given.

  14. rachel permalink
    August 31, 2010 4:28 pm

    just finished this bk. Not about food,about unique gifts of insights about life. Joseph? Dad,hospitals gift of grandpa and smells?Where are the booknotes on this? help,Rachel

  15. Nancy Marsh permalink
    September 23, 2010 2:42 am

    I don’t understand what was going on with her brother. Was he trying to become furniture? I don’t get that part. He was supposedly “as weird” as she was, but her weirdness allowed her to live in the world and his didn’t. So what was wrong with him and what was the whole thing about the chair. I went back and read several chapters over again, thinking I must have missed the explanation but I can’t find it.

    • Mariel permalink
      November 8, 2010 5:11 pm

      Nancy,

      I agree. I feel like that part was explained in only a few sentences, when a few good chunks of the book were about his disappearance and how strange the brother actually was. Also as far as “as weird” goes, Rose and her grandfather had gifts that had to do with senses, and feeling other people emotions and character. How did the brother’s weirdness even compare. Turning into furniture isn’t even a little bit related. I’d say if his gift was related to the sense of touch, and when he touched people he felt different things about them it would have come together more logically, but turning into inanimate objects, and being unable to control it just made a more confusing and undeveloped plot even more bleak and frustrating.

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