The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake begins like a fairy tale, as a young girl, Rose, realizes on her birthday that she can vividly experience the emotions of the person creating the dish she is eating. Her birthday cake is chocolate frosted, lemon-flavored, and it's rife with the debilitating depression of her mother, who baked it. The brightly sprinkled cake harboring such depths of sadness begins this unusual tale by Aimee Bender.
As a chef, the premise was intriguing to me. Rose can not only taste the emotion of the person creating the dish, but also discern the treatment of the cows producing the milk, or the cold lifelessness of a factory-produced potato chip. It is Rose’s pursuit in trying to understand this unusual ability that creates a compelling plot. Through the author’s mixed use of first-person dialogue and stream of consciousness, the reader becomes connected to Rose and her struggle to nourish her body without drowning her soul in the tsunami of emotion that accompanies each bite.
The story is a tale of strained relationships. The story is replete with loneliness and need, as Rose, her mother, and her father all reach out for that feeling of love and acceptance, while other characters, including Rose’s brother Joseph and her eclectic Grandmother, seem to retreat from that human connection. If the story focused on Rose and delved further into her relationship with food and her attempt to make sense of such an unusual palate, it would have remained a sweet – if tragic – surreal tale. Unfortunately, Benders adds too much of the magical realm, pushing the reader beyond the scope of acceptance, from fictional to fantastical.
The book becomes over-salted with the unusual, such as the description of Joseph’s "metamorphosis", which is confused and obtuse. The father’s unexplained gift that prevents him from entering hospitals is never fully developed, nor are such characters as Joseph’s best friend and Rose’s crush, George. Rose learns of her mother's infidelity while eating roast beef, though this seemingly pivotal plot development carries little significance as the story develops. This book began with a great concept, a good base of ingredients that were overly seasoned yet underdeveloped, turning it into an unsatisfying finish rather than the bittersweet story it could have been.
Click to the next page here for a delicious lemon cake recipe and savory roast beef sandwich courtesy of Stefanie Paganini.