The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you could see past social niceties into someone's secret state of mind? On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein finds out that some gifts arrive without notice, cannot be returned and give you more than you ever expected.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a bittersweet coming-of-age novel about a troubled family and a little girl who grows up too fast because she has the ability to sense people's feelings in the food they cook. On her birthday, her mother bakes a special cake and when Rose digs in, she is shocked to taste her mother's sadness, frustration and disappointment. In an instant, she realizes that her family is not what it seems- and that nothing will ever be the same again. And it's not just her mother's cooking; all of a sudden, Rose can sense anyone's emotional state by the food they cook, even strangers. She can even tell where things were made, how factories are run that make food, and more. She copes as best as she can until, years later, she finds a safe harbor and starts to build a life there.
In the meantime though, she has a lot on her plate. Each of her immediate family members- her mother, her father and her brother- have secrets they're keeping, some of which she can taste and some of which she can't. And her brother Joseph has a power even stranger than her own, and to help him she must overcome an adolescent crush, confront her parents and find out what she's really made of.
I enjoyed Lemon Cake very much. I didn't love it, but I thought it was a fine read. It reminds me a lot of Myla Goldberg's luminous Bee Season, another story about a dysfunctional family and a little girl with a special power and if I had to choose I'd say Bee Season is the better book but there's lots I admire about Lemon Cake. Rose is a wonderful character and I liked that Bender ages her quickly and doesn't spend too much time with little-girl Rose. Bender writes in the first person from Rose's point of view, but her voice is neither cloying nor naive; a grownup is telling you this story, not a child.
Reactions to Lemon Cake have been mixed and I can see why. Joseph's story will strike some readers as a little much, and the ending is rather understated and underwhelming. Joseph's bizarre troubles add another layer of magic realism to the story but struck me as a plot device to get Rose to interact with his friend George, with whom she's infatuated. I wish Rose's relationship with her father had been developed more; Rose seemed very alone to me. On balance though I think it's a neat little read that literary fiction readers and fans of magical realism will enjoy if not love. And I wish she'd had a stronger ending, not that it's exactly a bad one or a good one- just somewhere in between, kind of like life.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.