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.