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Friday, July 18, 2014

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Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Cake has a taste. It’s limited to the mouth. You can taste sour. You can taste sweet. You can’t taste sadness. At least, you’re not supposed to.

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose Edelstein can. She can taste the emotions of the people who cook her food. In her mother’s lemon cake, she tastes things she can’t even put to words. She tastes “hollow.”

Through her unique use of storytelling, Aimee Bender creates a world where junk food is gold and chairs are easier to be than people. And though it took me a while to digest it all, I came out on the other side of this book with a more profound interpretation of the traditional family dynamic and the feeling  that life is very strange, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Though the magic might fool you at first, this is a sad book. 
While some might consider this particular ability a gift, it’s an immense burden to Rose, who begins to develop anxiety about eating. This causes her to behave very oddly in normal situations, like sprinting to the cafeteria to make sure she gets served by one particularly “content” lunch lady. The only person who seems to believe her is her brother's charming friend, George. But her brother Joseph makes it clear that Rose can’t have his only friend, so Rose sets out on a lonely journey to unravel the meaning behind her unusual gift.

She does so by questioning her family’s strange dynamic, including the seemingly fated way in which her parents met, her mother’s obvious partiality to her older brother, her father’s inexplicable fear of hospitals, and her brother’s strange disappearances. Everyone in her family seems to have a secret, and Rose is tasked with keeping them to herself.

These are only five senses in this world. Sight. Smell. Hearing. Taste. And Touch. And thanks to M. Night Shyamalan, we even have a sixth one.

But what about intuition? Premonition? That gut feeling. Aren’t those senses too? Just because they’re not in the physical realm, it doesn’t mean human beings don’t experience them—some more strongly than others. And like a person with this talent, Rose has to make the choice of whether to address these feelings or keep them inside. She soon learns from her family’s example, and when she tastes the affair in her mom’s roast beef, she quickly chews the guilt and swallows the romance, silently dreaming of vending machines and a time where lemon cake tasted good.

In a casual way, this book does a good job of making you accept the extraordinary circumstances of this everyday family living in Los Angeles. But I actually had a hard time placing the genre of this book, because it’s certainly not a comedy or YA, but it’s also not terribly dramatic or romantic or even fantastical. It’s a book about feelings.

It’s interesting to suggest that it’s something of a curse to be empathetic (or even that having a superpower is a curse). Rose's power isolates her and from the third grade through high school, we see her stumbling for human connection. She desperately seeks a closer relationship with her brother, especially if that means she gets to spend more time with George. But Joseph has problems of his own. Too smart for his grade, he finds life dull yet cumbersome, and Rose dares not eat anything he has made, for his grip on reality is slipping as he grows more and more aloof from the world. And though Rose can sense a waft of loneliness from her brother as well; unlike her, he seems to prefer it that way.

Rich with symbolism, the entire novel is a commentary on the traditional family dynamic. This novel puts a lot of emphasis on the relationship between children and their parents and how sometimes, parents can push their burdens onto their children without even knowing it. Some burdens go too deep and, as she gets older, Rose can’t justify trying to live a normal life, like going away to college with her friends . Because Rose is not normal. It isn’t until the end of the novel that Rose finds out other members of her family might have special gifts of their own. And while her father has spent his life avoiding his (something Rose is jealous of), her brother finds it easier to let it consume him. This explains their detachment, and Rose doesn’t blame her mother’s craving for something more out of life.

Unlike her brother and her father, Rose is stuck in the middle. She can't avoid her gift completely (she has to eat), but she also has very reasonable qualms about embracing it. As readers, we remain eager for the opportunity where Rose can use her gift as just that--a gift. But it might mean that she has to finally let go of her family, and therein lies her lifelong struggle. 

At one point in the novel, Rose gives a presentation in school on the importance of junk food and vending machines, praising Doritos for their factory taste and the fact that you don’t have to pay attention to them. She sums up for the class, “a Dorito asks nothing of you, which is a great gift. It only asks that you are not there.”

This is another one of those books I seem to be drawn to where you don’t really know how to feel afterwards. There isn't a big aha! moment or even a happy ending. But despite it's melancholic tone, I found myself enjoying it. Aimee Bender has a unique writing style. I didn’t mind that she doesn’t bother to use quotations when writing dialogue, because the novel doesn’t need it. And though it jumps around a bit, there is such fluidity that I found the strangeness almost comforting. 

While challenging the traditional family dynamic, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake also explores the idea of loving someone when you know too much about them--something that seems to be becoming more increasingly universal. I would recommend this novel to those readers out there who might appreciate reading something a little different--something a little strange, but not really that strange at all.

Title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Author: Aimee Bender

Genre: Fiction, Slipstream

Recommendation: Absolutely

Best Reader Audience: People who find strangeness comforting

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Bumblebees

Want to immerse yourself in the strange? Get this book by clicking on the link below and your purchase will help support the lone book club!

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