The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

” The sauce was good, and simple, and thick.

Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums.  Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold.

I pressed the napkin to my eyes.

It’ll be ok, said Dad, patting my hand. ”

I stayed up half the night reading this book, listening to the even breath of the dog and the sirens outside, the random neighbors coming home from late nights.  Nighttime reading seemed appropriate for the story.  It’s a little magical, in the unusual-things-happen sense, not the intoxicating-fairy-tale-esque sense, and a lot melancholy.  I was surprised and pleased to see it’s an Alex Award winner for 2010. Remember The Book of Lost Things, my favorite book ever?  That won the Alex, too.  The award is for adult books that are especially appealing to young adults.

Rose can taste emotions in food: a great idea, in theory, but one that relegates her to a diet of Pringles, Doritos, and other factory foods, untouched (and therefore, untainted) by emotional humans.  Her 9th birthday cake comes replete with a dose of her mother’s powerful grief and loneliness.  Rose is already somewhat of an outsider, with an emotionally distant family: a genius mother, detached lawyer father, and flighty, desperately unhappy mother.  Her synesthesia isolates her further; the school nurse hints darkly about eating disorders, and a friend force-feeds her, using her as a sort of foodie-fortune teller hybrid, thrusting foods on her and demanding to know how she really feels.

Woven in the sober tale is a mystery, or rather, several mysteries.  Where is her brother disappearing to?  Why does her father refuse to set foot inside a hospital, preferring to sit on a crate on the sidewalk, reading a novel and waiting for the birth of his children?  Where does the deep grief of her mother spring from?

I was actually a little shocked when the mystery was revealed.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s nothing earth-shattering when you consider the magical feel to the novel.  Even though I understood the magical feelings-taste connection, I wasn’t familiar with the author, and her reputation as a “fabulist”, or her genre, what Publisher’s Weekly refers to as “pessimistic magical realism”, but I do think they are perfectly descriptive of the novel.  This is a sad, layered, complex story, and I’m interested to see what Aimee Bender writes next.

My only issue?  I wanted much more description of the eating of the emotions.  After all, food and love and culture is so connected already:  we eat the love and effort of those who cook for us.  It’s only a small chimerical extrapolation to taste their feelings, as well.  And Bender has a lovely, pensive style; I think this good story could have been even better.  I also loved the strange and eerie disappearances of the brother, as well, but again, I wish there were more of it.

I think I’ll check out another book of hers, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.flammableskirt.com/

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. New York: Doubleday, 2010.  292 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, try A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, or The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson.

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2 thoughts on “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

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