Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Doubleday, 2010. 292 pp. $25.95
I’m usually not a fan of magical realism, preferring straight fantasy, but I started reading the Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake this evening, went to bed, and got up an hour later to finish it, compelled to find out what happened. What a lovely, lovely book.
When Rose takes a bite of dessert one night, she not only tastes the flavor of the food, but the emotion of the baker behind it, her sad mother. And it keeps happening, to a point of distraction, until she can only eat processed, packaged food. Meanwhile, her reclusive brother has a secret of his own.
I really appreciated the palpability of the novel–the descriptions of food and how things taste, and the emotions associated with the creator of each dish Rose experiences, but also the detailing of her mother’s woodworking, the crazy things her grandmother sends in the mail, the way people smell. It’s a richly sensual book, but doesn’t feel over the top with lush writing.
The setting is not quite a character in it’s own right, but it’s diversity makes its presence the perfect backdrop for this dysfunctional family. I’ve only been to LA twice but could visualize the streets, yet didn’t feel alienated by the references I didn’t get.
The rituals defined within the story: the mother’s insomnia/sleeping in, the father’s morning horn honk, how the reader gets the story and circumstances of her parents meeting and Rose and Joseph’s birth, all appear several times, through different lens, giving a sense of Rose maturing and coming to deeper understanding of herself and her family members.
Rose’s narrative voice was entrancing for me, and one of the reasons I found this unputdownable. She is straight-forward, thoughtful, perhaps a bit flat in places–she doesn’t push for the things she wants: to be seen, by her parents, friends at school, by George–it’s a bit ironic her brother is the one with the skill he develops. I think her voice, and her sensitivity to emotions, make the novel highly appealing. I also found it an easy read in terms of pacing and language, making it highly accessible.