Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

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I’ve been mulling around in my head exactly what to say about this book for the last couple of days. I find that sometimes when a book leaves me mulling it’s a good thing, and sometimes, not so much. It all depends on the mulling, really, doesn’t it? If you’re mulling over some deep philosophically important question about the human experience, that’s a good mulling. If you’re just thinking, “Well, that didn’t make any sense!” or “That was a complete waste to time!” that’s not so much good mulling. The mulling I’ve been doing over this novel may be somewhere in between.

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, we meet Rose Edelstein and her family. On her ninth birthday, Rose begins to be able to taste the feelings of the people who made the food she eats. It starts with her mother’s lemon chocolate cake. Okay, let me just say here that lemon chocolate cake sounds really disgusting to me to begin with, with or without your mother’s angst. As the book jacket tells you, Rose discovers that this “gift” might really be a “curse.”

Well, not to give anything away, but yes, it’s a curse. Big surprise there. I used to think I would pick the ability to read minds as my superpower, but really, no way. Who wants to know what people are thinking about you, or themselves, or the world in general. I have enough on my plate dealing with my own thoughts.

I read somewhere Bender’s work described as magical realism, and yes, I guess so, in the sense that no scientists arrive on the scene to investigate Rose’s abilities. She certainly thinks it’s strange to be able to taste thoughts in people’s food, but she doesn’t do much about it beside take refuge in snack food, which because of it’s high level of machine processing, tastes fairly neutral.

I guess you could also call it magical realism in the sense that her ability to taste emotions in food isn’t really at the center of the book. It’s there, she discovers it, she finds ways to deal with it, but then the book is about a teenage girl growing up, and oh, she happens to be able to taste what people are feeling.

A bit of a spoiler alert: The interesting story in this book is not Rose, but her brother. The mystery that drives it is not what will happen to Rose, but rather what’s going on with her brother. This is the part of the book I like the most. Her brother begins to disappear, and there’s an interesting mystery with these disappearances.

Still think lemon chocolate cake looks kind of gross

This part of the story I found creepy, and real, and relatable all at once. Sometimes I just wanted Bender to ditch Rose altogether and tell me more about her brother, Joseph. Why didn’t she? Why did these two have to go in a novel together? I wanted more from Joseph’s story than a novel told in first person from Rose’s perspective would allow.

It’s what happens to Joseph in the end that left me with the good and bad mulling all in one. The good mulling was along the lines of, “Huh. What would that be like and would I respond the way Joseph did?” That’s a good mulling. The bad mulling was, “Well, now, so what exactly happened there?” That’s a not so good mulling.

One other thing. The book is about food on some levels. About Rose’s experience with food. But it’s not very sensuous. It wasn’t very foodie to me. The food was incidental to the other things going on. And maybe that’s it, Rose can’t taste the food for the emotions, but I thought in a book with food at the center, it should have been more, I don’t know, focused on taste and smell? (I’m thinking of this in part because at 750 words, a website I mentioned before, after you finish your 750 words, one of the analyses it does is on the predominant senses in your writing…are your 750 words mostly visual, oral, tactile, olfactory? Very cool to think about.)

This novel was a relatively short read, and seems to be getting a lot of buzz. I found it interesting in parts (Joseph’s story) but overall just okay.

Do you have good mulling and bad mulling after you finish a book?  Or do you mull at all?

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Comments

  1. This book definitely left me with mulling…good and bad like you. It was a book club book for me and there was some great discussion–some loved it and some hated it. The ones who didn't like it just thought it was too strange. The ones who loved it felt that it was a beautiful parallel to mental illness or other severe differences people may have. I'm still mulling. 🙂

  2. I absolutely mull (I'm Hamlet-esque by nature), especially if I felt the book wound up wasting my time. That's why the action piece of my new reading/mulling practice has been so helpful to me: any book (and all the time I invested in reading it) is redeemable if my mulling includes ideas for creative or community-serving or life-enhancing actions.
    The 750 analysis (How nifty is that?) might be translatable to action too: I was wondering how it might feel to create some of the sensory passages you saw as lacking in the novel… You could go way over the top with it, just for the joy…
    Dunno. Just a mulling.

  3. Melody, that's interesting about your book group. I didn't think it was too strange at all. I like strange. I did think about Rose's situation being a metaphor for eating disorders, but didn't think about mental illness and Joseph especially, but that does work well. The question with a metaphor seems to be, why tell the story metaphorically instead of just telling the story itself? Maybe I should suggest this for book group.

    Laurie, that's a good idea to try and do something with the book so you don't feel like you wasted your time. I like that phrase, “life-enhancing actions.” What a nice way to think about reading.

  4. Fantastic review! Bender always leaves me feeling vaguely uncomfortable — An Invisible Sign of My Own and especially Willful Creatures. I think I liked them — they've certainly stuck with me — but immediately upon finishing both I was kind of baffled about how I really felt. So I've kept my eye on Bender but haven't read anything else — and I'm on the fence abt picking up this one!

  5. Audra, thanks and glad you liked the review. Thanks for following! I'm tempted to read some of her other stuff, even after my somewhat ambivalent reaction to Lemon Cake. But not right away. Maybe the short story collection.

  6. Willful Creatures won the Tiptree which is why I picked it up — I think I recommend it. If you ever do pick it up, I'd love to hear your thoughts. (If you're in the market for oddly intense or intensely odd short fiction, I recommend Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone.)

  7. Thanks for leaving a link to your review on my site. I pretty much felt the same way…if this book spent more time on Joseph, it might have been better. But, since the protagonist was Rose, it just felt incomplete! Here's my review: Adventures in Borkdom

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