I was in the library the other day, and the audio version of this book was on the center display — the one where they show off books of a particular topic or theme. Sometimes the theme is a holiday or a season. In spring, it’s often filled with books about flowers, for instance. I’m not sure what the theme was this month because I didn’t look closely. Food, perhaps? But as I love lemon cake, I was intrigued. I don’t do terribly well with audio books, so I headed to the shelves to see if the print version was there. It was, so I checked it out and read it.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender follows the life of Rose Edelstein, who discovers at nine years old that she can taste feelings in food. As in, whatever emotions the cook or baker had when preparing the food, she can tell when she eats. This is upsetting to a young girl who must now mange her mother’s despair, the cafeteria lady’s grief, or the anger of the employee in the cookie shop down the block. After all, she is learning to manage her own developing emotions, and now she must deal with the hidden, secret emotions of her family as well as people she’s never met.
Rose’s family is detached from each other — she from her parents, her mother from her father, her brother from herself — except for what seems to be a strange dependence of her mother on Rose’s brother. But brother Joseph is separate from everyone in the world, it seems, and Rose can’t figure out why; she only knows that his peanut butter sandwiches taste so terrible she can’t even swallow them.
The novel takes seriously this idea that Rose can taste emotions. When other characters discover the trait, no one seems to think it impossible — just unusual. It reminds me of magical realism, but only to a tiny degree. A more significant focus is the dysfunction of a family and a girl who is learning to navigate life in the midst of it. As Rose ages (the book follows her into her twenties), we see how she grows maturity and compassion, and how she learns to connect to others because of– or perhaps despite — her special ability.
This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t terribly sad either. Melancholy is perhaps the best word. Intriguing. Thought-provoking. Funny at times. It’s a good read.