Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

May 22, 2017 Review 2

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on June 1, 2010
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy & Magic, Young Adult
Format: Paperback
Pages: 292
Source: Personal Copy
Sexual Content: brief reference to sex, kissing
Reviewed by: Rebecca
3 Stars

The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.

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’s hard to work up an appetite when sandwiches just want you to love them, cookies taste like anger, and your mom's food tastes hollow. In THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, Rose Edelstein would have had a very normal, very dull life if it wasn’t for one thing: she can taste emotion in food. She first notices this power when tasting her mother's lemon cake, realizing how dissatisfied her mother felt about their family. From then on, Rose has a constant battle with food, preferring mass-produced, machine-made food over handmade meals.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE shines when Rose is interacting with her father and brother. Her father is basically Mr. Banks pre-Mary Poppins. He has an idea of what a family should look like, how a home should be made, but no interest in contributing. He is vague and distant, so much so that whenever he confides in Rose, it’s powerful and heartbreaking. Rose’s brother, Joseph, is a cipher. Too much so. At first he seems like the typical older brother, aloof and annoyed at his younger sibling. When it becomes clear that something much stranger is happening to Joseph, that plotline gets buried.

You can tell Aimee Bender made her name with short stories. The writing is poetic, every sentence carefully thought out. The book is split into snapshots of Rose’s life as she learns to cope with her powers and her disintegrating family. It’s a beautifully-written coming of age story but it doesn’t feel like there was enough plot to warrant the novel. There’s too much vagueness about Joseph’s condition. It’s distracting the lengths the novel goes to not explain what’s happening to him. We need that explanation. While a slap-in-the-face reveal works well in a short story, it doesn’t work in a novel when you’re waiting for the writer to get to the point. Read the novel for it’s fascinating descriptions of Rose’s family, their interactions with each other and the secrets that they keep. If you’re looking for a novel that nicely wraps up its storylines, this might not be for you.

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For similar coming of age novels with beautiful writing, try: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters, or Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

2 Responses to “Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender”

  1. Annette

    This concept reminds me a bit of Like Water For Chocolate. I love novels that mix up food and family with a bit of a quirk to it, so the idea behind the novel sounds right up my alley! How disappointing that the execution wasn’t quite right. Out of interest, is this a light hearted read? Or is it a bit depressing? I can’t really tell

  2. Rebecca

    Overall I’d say it’s a lighthearted read. There are definitely some depressing elements, especially if you identify with their family dynamic, but Rose’s journey is largely positive.