The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is an amazingly moving book about a nine-year-old girl named Rose Edelstein who can taste people’s emotions in the food they make and prepare. She can taste if a farmer was angry when he picked his tomatoes and if someone was in a rush when they baked a batch of cookies.
She only finds out about her strange talent on her birthday, when her mother bakes her a lemon cake. She goes and lies down to have a nap, leaving Rose to take the cake out of the oven. She can’t resist tasting it, but when she does, it feels like there’s a hole in the food- like it’s hollow. Her mother’s heart wasn’t in it when she was making it. The dinner is the same, and Rose, being young, has trouble coping with what’s going on on her own. Gradually she gets used to it and it becomes part of her normal lifestyle, but because she puts up with it doesn’t mean that she enjoys it. It dominates her life.
The Edelstein family have a difficult relationship. Rose’s father, who has a strange terror of hospitals, only singled her out when she showed a talent for drawing soccer balls perfectly.
Rose’s mother is having an affair with a man at her carpentry class, Larry, and Rose only knows because she can taste it in her mother’s food. The rest of the family are in the dark.
Rose’s older brother Joseph used to be scarily smart, the class genius, but his grades are slipping and Rose notices that there’s something odd about him- sometimes he just disappears.
Rose’s grandmother is ancient and sends the Edelsteins strange cardboard boxes containing broken teacups, dish towels, and cracked tins of old rouge. They only ever talk to her down the phone.
Rose admires Joseph’s friend George, who often comes round to solve physics problems with Joseph. It is he who first helps her find out her problem. Of course, he has to leave for college and when Joseph doesn’t get in, he rents a flat by himself, so that Rose is left with only her parents for company. They hardly ever talk to her and only Rose’s mother ever really seems to acknowledge her.
George leaves for college and although he comes back to see her sometimes and calls her on the phone, but their relationship doesn’t work out and after a while he gets married to a botanist from his college.
Rose’s friend Eliza abandons her to go round with another group of girls as they grow up, and Rose makes her own friend, a girl who she thinks is going to stay her friend forever. She thinks that her friend Sherrie accepts her talent and finds it interesting, but it turns out that she is only friends with Rose so that Rose can eat food she makes and tell her how she’s feeling, whether she really likes a boy, whether she’s really depressed. When she realises that Sherrie doesn’t even know she has a brother and is only interested in Rose’s talent and not in Rose herself, Rose tries to change their friendship so that they are proper friends instead of being like servant and master. Sherrie, who is self-centred and didn’t care much about Rose in the first place, slams down the phone after Rose suggests a film instead of more food tasting and they never speak again.
When Eliza and Eddie, Rose’s only remaining childhood friends, leave for college, Rose, who is deciding to stay at home instead to ‘avoid the drama of dorm cafeterias entirely’, is on her own.
Rose changes, dying her hair and learning to drive and making her own money by working at a restaurant and in an office, where she meets a man called Peter who is later to become her boyfriend. Joseph’s disappearances grow more and more frequent and alarming, until Rose begins to give him up for lost. Rose perfects her talent at tasting foods, and even tries her own food, although there’s a taste in it that she hates and can’t work out. Her mother’s affair goes on and her father is still terrified of hospitals and her grandmother dies, and Rose finds out something she never knew about her grandfather. But amongst all this, Rose finally finds out where she belongs.
I really enjoyed this book because it mixes the impossible with reality and makes it really believable, just by the way Rose tells it. The sentences are beautifully constructed and normally I read books very fast, but with this one I slowed down a lot so that I could concentrate on the language.
The dialogue does not have speech marks around it and it’s not in italics, but it’s not at all confusing and somehow makes it a better read.
I like the way it’s told from Rose’s point of view, because when time passes and she goes from being a nine-year-old to a thoroughly independent teenager, she doesn’t even notice herself changing until she’s looking through the family photo album and doesn’t recognise herself. I found that bit especially moving. Time goes very slowly, but by the end of the book you realise that there is a completely different person telling the story than there was at the beginning.
The subject of the book is very original and I think that the characterisation of Rose’s family is very well done. I also like the way it doesn’t end with a flourish, and the last sentence is very subtle.
One of the three things I don’t like about this book is that the family have a lot of secrets from each other, and none of them are really resolved by the end. It’s a bit unsatisfying. I think that Aimee Bender should do a short epilogue in which Rose mentions those secrets, even if it’s just to say that they stayed a secret.
Another not-so-good thing is that Rose’s character does not really develop through the story until the very end, when the change in the way she thinks and acts is too abrupt. She’s a teenager but she speaks and thinks exactly how she did when she was nine. She’s had to virtually look after herself since she was a child but this does not really come across in the way she tells her story, which in a naïve and simple way like somebody who has not really seen the world and is still at the stage of playground games. By the time Rose is twenty-two the story is still told in that same way.
And then there’s the whole mystery of Rose’s brother Joseph’s disappearing skill, which I feel is definitely not a crucial addition to the book. Take it out and the book would, yes, be less unusual, but because Rose doesn’t really give much thought to the fact that Joseph’s gone makes it seem a bit pointless. If a mother or father lost their son they would probably be frantic, but after Joseph’s final disappearance life in the Edelstein household seems to go on exactly the same way. The conclusion, when Joseph is found and hospitalized, was too sudden and out of the blue. The story could not have done without Joseph as a character but it could have done without his special skill. With most books I like I would say that I wish there was a sequel but I think this book finishes in the right place, although the end does feel just a bit rushed.
I have read this book at least seven times and would definitely go back to it again. It’s got a bit of everything for everyone in it, and as well as being a teenage book it could also very easily be for adults too. The cover picture is also very inviting and while it doesn’t give much away it’s very descriptive of the book. The girl on the cover looks exactly how I imagine the nine-year-old Rose.
Genre: Fantasy/realistic at the same time!
Estimated reading age: Twelve and up
Price on Amazon: £5.29 for paperback, £5.03 for Kindle edition
Author: Aimee Bender
Main characters: Rose, George, Joseph, Rose’s mother, Rose’s father.
Rating: ★★★★ Overall an amazing original book with a great front cover, but some things could have been given a lot more thought and time.