Review by Kate Brauning
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
Anchor Books, 2010
From Goodreads: 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.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. It is heartbreaking and funny, wise and sad, and confirms Aimee Bender’s place as “a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language” (San Francisco Chronicle).
First, take a second look at that cover. Isn’t it haunting? Don’t miss the shadow. What a gorgeous piece of cover work.
I picked this book up in Barnes and Noble months ago. I was browsing, read a chapter, and put it down. I was looking for something a bit more commercial at the time, and so I didn’t take it home. But that first chapter stuck with me. The little girl in a sunny kitchen. Eggs and lemon and counter tiles. An apron with a twinned cherry pattern. I kept thinking back to what a stark and transportive first chapter that was, and so months later, I ordered it. I just finished reading it today, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Bender’s language is a gift to read. Sharp, insightful, poetic. The author has an unusual talent for showing readers the other side of things; the oddness of normal things, the comfort in the strange, and the power in what would otherwise be an ordinary moment.
The story is richly imagined with layer after layer giving texture and life to Rose’s childhood. It’s a beautiful story, full of light and heartwarming moments, framed in the knife-sharp struggle of a little girl trying to fit into her world and love her family how it is.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a haunting story about siblings, the power of food, and the ordinary things that either wreck us or save us. I highly recommend this book to readers of all kinds.
Readers: pick this up for gorgeous writing and a solid, contemplative read.
Writers: read this as a study of poetic devices used effectively in prose, use of a MC that progresses from MG to adult age, and subtle use of powerful emotion in writing.