The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a moving account of a young girl's journey through adolescence as she comes to terms with the separate lives of her brother and mother and father.
The main character, Rose, narrates this novel from an unspecified point of future maturity. She begins her telling when she is 8 years old. It is then on this birthday when she discovers that she can taste the thoughts and emotions of those who prepare her food. The lemon cake her mother made for her 8th birthday is suffused with a painful longing and dissatisfaction which she cannot stomach. Being men, her brother and father gobbled the cake right up; her mother is taken aback that Rose seems not to appreciate her effort.
Eventually, as Rose grows up she figures out that the source of the particular sadness she first tasted in her mother's lemon cake was the sort of secret that would be a spoiler to tell in a review. Rose can test the emotions fueling other foods as well, but baked goods are always strongest. In short, Rose is a supernatural supertaster.
The narration focuses on three specific points of Rose's youth: ages 8, 12 and 17. Rose's knowledge of her mother's secret and her (mostly) secret way of knowing tinge her development with a profound loneliness. Each age carries its own additional difficulties and revelations as Rose forges an identity in the groups in which she happens to fall into and eventually comes to choose on her own.
Rose's psychic-synesthetic-gastronimcal talent is reminiscent of the otherwise ordinary people with extraordinary powers in the movie Unbreakable or, even, the doctrine of transubstantation. As her tastes mature, Rose finds that she is able to determine the county of origin for each individual ingredient in her food as well as distinguish what the moods and intentions of the cook(s) in question were at the time. She comes to take what makes her unique for granted, just to stay sane.
This novel seamlessly blends humor with pathos, yielding many epiphanies in the form of insights into human psychology. And perhaps most realistically of all, many times the epiphanies reveal nothing whatsoever.
I found this book surprising and engaging. After two false starts I finished it rather quickly. It is a more balanced novel than the author's first novel, which I also enjoyed.
Aimee Bender's sentences are like well-built tables and chairs, inviting you to stay a while and feel something else.
Author: Aimee Bender
Published in 2010 by Anchor Books.