THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, is an odd book. I am not a big fan of magical realism, and I think I would put this book in that category (or maybe science fiction). It’s about the Edelstein family – Rose (8 when the book opens), her distant and antisocial older brother Joe, and her parents, who have their own issues. Rose realizes on her ninth birthday that she has a special talent – she can eat food and determine the emotional state of the person who prepared it. Eating the birthday cake her mother has prepared for her, she detects intense sadness on her mother’s part, a burden that she carries around for years to come.

Rose tries to tell her mother and brother about her “gift”, but they either don’t understand it (her mother) or don’t care enough to listen (Joseph). The whole family is basically dysfunctional because of their intense self-absorption; no one seems to pay enough attention to the others to notice how lonely they each are. Their conversations with each other are flat and unexpressive, and they rarely express love or even affection, except for Rose’s mother’s deep, almost suffocating love for her son.

Rose tries to come to terms with her sixth sense, but finds that she can only enjoy food when it is so processed that its preparation is undetectable. But I found her journey to this realization to be one of the great weaknesses of Bender’s book. I’d love to have learned more about the people whose emotions Rose experiences in their food. Instead we learn that salads are angry or that a cupcake may be frustrated… and that’s that. Even Rose’s mother’s sadness is underexplored. We get a lot of background about Rose’s parents’ relationship and how they met and married, but the sadness isn’t really convincing without more explanation.

Then there’s Joe, Rose’s resentful, science-obsessed older brother who barely gives her the time of day. It turns out that Joe also has a special talent – he can make himself disappear. Rose lives her life in fear that he will disappear permanently, though it’s not like they had much of a relationship for her to miss.  And when Joe does disappear, her mother is very upset, and her father is concerned… but that’s it. It is not until the end of the book that the reader gets any sense for the impact Joe’s disappearance has on his parents, or what they did about it.

This book just wasn’t for me. The writing was lyrical and poetic, almost heartbreakingly beautiful at times. But the gaping holes in the story and the coldness and flat affect of the characters’ dialogue made the story even less believable. I think there were a lot of missed opportunities for Bender to explore what Rose learned about the people who prepared her food, but she rarely went beyond “peas that were picked by desperate immigrants” or “organic turkey from a farm in Wisconsin”. Ultimately, everyone in the book was so devoid of emotion that I just couldn’t care about what was happening to them.

I listened to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on audio, narrated by the author. I usually love author narration, but Bender’s voice is flat and unexpressive (which may be why I found her characters to be so as well). The audio was slow and mellow, and I found my mind wandering as I listened (never a good sign). But when I did pick up the book from time to time, I still found it lacking, so the audio wasn’t totally to blame.

This book got decent reviews when it came out; I’d love to hear from EDIWTB readers who enjoyed it. What did you like about it? What did I miss?

11 Comments

  • August 11, 2012 - 7:49 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen really mixed reviews of this book so I can’t decide if I want to give it a try or not.

    • gayle
      August 13, 2012 - 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I’d take a pass.

  • Sarah
    August 11, 2012 - 4:18 pm | Permalink

    What an odd sounding book!

    • gayle
      August 13, 2012 - 5:25 pm | Permalink

      It IS an odd book.

  • August 13, 2012 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    Everything was under explored in this one. And what was up with her brother?

    People who have not read it, look away…

    What was up with him being a chair??

    • gayle
      August 13, 2012 - 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree. TOTALLY! The chair thing was so bizarre. I feel like I could have missed it entirely.

  • August 24, 2012 - 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree about the chair thing. Also, the father just couldn’t enter a hospital. And I have a deep dislike when quotation marks aren’t used in a novel. It’s a big distraction. I was disappointed with this book and kept thinking maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get it.

    • gayle
      August 24, 2012 - 11:27 pm | Permalink

      Totally agree on the quotation marks! This book was a disappointment to me.

  • August 31, 2012 - 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I got a couple chapters in and never finished it.

  • Ariel
    September 9, 2012 - 8:26 am | Permalink

    Hated it, one of the all time worst books ever!

    • gayle
      September 9, 2012 - 10:24 pm | Permalink

      I am glad to see that I am not alone on this!

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