I don’t really know where to begin with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It left a particular feeling of regret in my mouth—not because it was bad, but because I didn’t love it the way I thought I would.
Setting aside my expectations for a minute, let’s talk about the book. The prose is absolutely beautiful. Aimee Bender has an incredibly lyric writing style, which lends itself well to the story. The main character, Rose, has the particular ability to taste emotions. Whatever the cook is feeling—particularly hidden or repressed feelings—Rose tastes in the food. Her solution to this problem is to devour highly processed foods like frozen dinners and Oreos, because they aren’t really “made” by anyone.
Even then she can’t really escape her taste buds, because she can tell the difference between factories, which is where Bender’s prose shines. The descriptive food passages are incredible for their complexity and their ability to allow you to enter Rose’s particular dilemma. Her family seems normal on the outside, but through Rose’s incredible mouth we get to experience a whole range of problems, including her brother’s emotional detachment and her mother’s affair.
I found Rose’s “skill” (as her father refers to it) and her search for an escape interesting, and neatly juxtaposed with her brother’s skill—the ability to disappear into objects. Her grandfather could smell people and understand who they really were and how they were feeling by their scent; her father refuses to set foot in a hospital and so never learns what his skill is.
I think Bender does an excellent job of putting magic realism into a North American context by focusing it on these elements of our culture that we cannot escape—mass-produced food, hospitals, smell, etc. Classic examples of magic realism include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which focus on Indian and South American cultures, respectively. Both novels tend to draw more on mythological and magical elements of their cultures to invoke similar phenomena. What Bender does—and what I really admire about the novel—is she makes magic realism accessible and relatable without relying on that background mythology that tends to carry the genre.
That said, there was something about the book that simply did not satisfy me. The fan shipper inside of me kept rooting for Rose to end up with George, which didn’t happen. I also found the ending with her brother, while resolved, incredibly sad. Some part of me wanted Rose and her family to get the happy ending they deserved instead of the bittersweet, slightly hollow feeling the book left behind.
The first time Rose experiences her abilities, she’s five years old and she cannot name the empty feeling that haunts her mother. I feel like Rose because overall, it was a good book, but for some reason I cannot name, it just didn’t grab me.
[This has been review #4 in the For Your Review series. Be sure to catch up and check out KD's first-time assessments of fantasy recommendations of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Mistborn Trilogy, and Daughter of Exile.]