Friday, 20 July 2012

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

UK paperback cover of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Take a quick look at the girl on the UK paperback cover of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on the left. Fairly normal girl, right? In fact, she looks a little like my niece. Why then, could I not stop looking at her as I was reading this? I've never seen a more perfect cover though. It's fairly plain and unoriginal, but that girl with the lemons is perfect. I even imagined her as Rose as I read this. I can practically smell those damn lemons.

Plot summary - On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  

I really, really liked The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. The way Rose comes to understand her special skill is wonderfully described - it's not just the emotions of the preparer she can taste, but also the source of the ingredients, the welfare of the animal it came from or even the state of the farm the food was grown on. Eventually she takes pains to avoid eating food that isn't solely factory made, but even then she is plagued by recognition of various factories.

I could be half aware of the conversation, cutting up the meat, and the rest of the time I was driving truck routes through the highways of America, truck beds full of yellow onions. When I went to the supermarket with my mother I double-checked all my answers, and by the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California's was rounder-tasting, due to the desert ground and the clear tangy water of far-flung irrigation.
Okay, let's get this out of the way - there are no speech marks. Yes, it's a massive shocker and yes, I was truly horrified at the very thought too. But you know what? You get used to it much, much quicker than you'd expect and I'm usually a stickler for conventional formats. It's never confusing and it's always easy to tell who's speaking. If anything, it actually benefits the story as it reads more like someone looking back and recounting their experiences - when you retell an anecdote to a friend, you don't stand there and patiently narrate it like a story, going 'He said, she said' and doing all the necessary voices, do you?

That sums up the entire novel nicely, actually. Instead of a straight-forward linear narrative, Rose 'speaks' as though she were absent-mindedly talking to a friend - it's mostly in chronological order, but every so often she'll jump back to talk about a related story from her past. I liked her though - she's a very realistic younger sibling and disregarded second child. Her thoughts are believable too, or as much as they can be when discussing a magical power in all but name.

Her parents stand out as deep, well-written characters too, although I found her mother to be a little irritating with her creepy obsessing over Joseph, her other child. I didn't like Rose's Dad much to begin with, but as the story progresses and we find out more about her extended family, he becomes a little more understandable. That particular development was wonderful and completely cemented my love for this book.

I'd have liked a little more explanation, I think. Not about why Rose just miraculously has a gift, because hey, I can roll with that. But about... other stuff. And people. That I'd like to talk about, but can't. I don't need Aimee Bender to draw me a diagram in fingerpaint or anything, but I'd like to know about... things. God, sometimes I'm so helpful I even amaze myself.

It's strange, my Dad was varnishing a piece of wood with lemon oil as I was reading this, and now whenever I think about this book I can smell a woody-lemon aroma. Isn't it odd how your smell memory works?

So yes, I loved The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It stayed in my head for long after I'd finished - the last line is particularly poignant and still resonates now. I really would recommend reading this - I know I'll be buying everything else Aimee Bender has ever written. Ever. 

Visit Aimee Bender's website here, or find her on Twitter.


  1. Shiiiiiit! I thought I'd escaped this one... apparently not! *wearily adds it to her wishlist* Have you read LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, because the description totally reminded me of that. And now I must read it, because it sounds cleverer than CHOCOLATE, with a more modern sensibility, and my book-addled brain quite likes that idea.

    Also, totally agree about how amazing our olfactory memory is. The other day I was walking along the river after it rained, and there were wet leaves on the ground, and I just said to Mum "Aaah, smell that! That's autumn in Clumber Park when I was a little girl!" Lovely...

    P.S. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is so beautiful and sweet and achingly lovely. I'm officially in love already. Go read it! :)

    1. I have Like Water for Chocolate, but I haven't read it yet (shockingly). I do really want to get to it, pretty much because I know you really liked it, but... SO MANY BOOKS!

      Olfactory memory! God damn it, I knew there was a word for it!

      I will, I will. Again, it's on my TBR... There are just so, so many books I really want to read, but I seem to have ended up with two huge, slow books on the go at the minute. I mean, I love them both, but they're hardly quick reads and I kind of want to read something else now...

    2. Yeah, I do that too, start something epic and then get book-impatient. It never feels like I'm reading fast enough! I learned the term 'olfactory' by reading PERFUME. I may be 25, but there's still time to do what teacher said and learn new vocabulary by reading! ;)

      *suspects Hanna is still slumping and pelts her with a few more chocolate buttons and twelve extra-strong espressos*

  2. I've had this for a while now but have not read it yet. I've seen some mixed reviews but think I will like it. I didn't actually know about the no speech marks thing, so thanks for the warning!

  3. I wanted to read this when i first saw the title but then I saw so many meh reviews I decided not to get it. I know the Portuguese don't use speech marks and I've struggled with a few translations (always think they translator could put them in) but I wonder if it's written that way for an English speaking audience it might be a bit clearer? I'm sure there are other books I've read that haven't used them where I haven't noticed so much.

    1. I know the Spanish use hyphens instead of speech marks?

      This is perfectly clear anyway. Like I said up there, I forgot about it after literally a page. It was my first experience too!

  4. great review, this one has been on my wishlist for ever and I really do think I'm gunna have to get a copy soon!!

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