At the beginning of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the narrator, nearly nine year old Rose, recounts a moment she once had with her mother. From page 23-4:
I love everything, she told me when I was still little enough to sit high on her hip. I don’t know what I like! she said brightly, kissing me on the nose. You’re so cute! she said. So cute! You! You!
I sort of want to do that with this book–gather it up and exclaim, “You! You!”
This is a novel that skews surreal–Rose can taste people’s feelings in the food they cook–yet remains entirely grounded in very human relationships and emotions. It is highly readable, a quick read even, filled with beautiful sentences, well-drawn scenes and humor. Sadness, though, is pervasive. Rose’s terrible talent allows her to understand, way before she is equipped to do so, that people’s true feelings are not necessarily evident to others, or even to themselves. At one point, early on, unable to deal with what she tastes in her mother’s freshly baked fruit pie, she is taken to the emergency room, delirious, begging to have her mouth removed.
As heart-wrenching as that moment was, there were many others to rival it. Any scene between Rose and one of her family members–her secretly suffering mother, her stoic father, her antisocial science genius brother–just brimmed with the half-said and unsayable, their longing to connect butting up against their inability to do so. The small moments when they do meet in the middle or cross over to the other person’s side soar.
Rose’s most honest relationship is with her brother’s childhood friend, George, who starts out awkward but blossoms into a teenage heartthrob, then a successful adult. He takes her and her issues seriously, and loves her, although he cannot save her.
And, as far as heroines go, Rose is about as likable as can be. She bears her affliction as best she can, learning to eat only packaged, factory-made foods; she basically identifies and works within her limitations, striving for the best life for herself and her loved ones that she can.
Much is revealed by the end of the novel, but these revelations, though narratively satisfying, do not explain away any of the characters’ special skills. To read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is to enter a world with Aimee Bender, one that is mysterious and poignant and well-worth your time.