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Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

SPOILER ALERT: I spoil the living daylights out of this book, so if you want to be surprised, read the book, then come back later.

As I walked through the bookstore, I glanced to my right and said to the Nerd, “‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake?’ That’s a title that will make me pick up the book,” fully expecting the second half of my statement to be, “And that’s a description that will make me put the book back on the shelf.” Imagine my surprise when that turned out to not be the case and I ended up walking out of the store with yet another book to add to my pile of to-reads.

The story opens with eight-almost-nine-year-old Rose, who takes a bite of the lemon cake her mother has baked for her (as a part of what can only be described as her mother’s wanting to find herself) and realizes that she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. Unfortunately, this new skill does not end with just her mother, so Rose finds herself able to taste the emotions of the makers as well as exactly from where all the ingredients come–down to where farms and factories are located.

She finds almost no one in whom she can confide–her mother shows obvious favoritism for her brother, her brother Joseph is potentially chronically depressed/chronically Asberger’s, and her father is emotionally distant, playing the part of a doting father and husband rather than feeling it. The only person she finds who will listen and is interested is her brother’s best (and only) friend George who is the same kind of genius science nerd as her brother, but with more warmth.

But even though he believes her, George isn’t always there and Rose suffers through the years feeling, as far as I could tell, very little love in her life. Then she finds out, through the taste of dinner, that her mother has started having an affair at the woodworking co-op where she works (the only hobby/career that seems to have stuck past the initial stages). It’s also about this time that he brother starts disappearing when he’s supposed to be babysitting her. He never leaves for very long and there is a hint that these episodes might bring Joseph and Rose closer together.

Ultimately, unfortunately, however, they don’t…which also seems to be a running theme throughout the book–nothing ever seems to be fully resolved. Rose’s mother carries on a years-long affair, but there’s never any explanation for why. Rose’s father reveals that his father had a similar skill to Rose’s and that his overwhelming fear of hospitals is because he thinks he might be able to “do something” if he was ever in one, but it’s not explored beyond his refusal to go with Rose to the hospital to see what it could be–even though this would bring him closer to his daughter. We find out that Joseph’s disappearing act is because he is somehow melding into the furniture and…

What? No, really. He melds into the furniture. That’s the grand reveal of the book. He’s a genius scientist and all his studies throughout the years have left him with a way to become furniture. When the disappearances first started popping up, I was excited that he might be time- or inter-dimensional travelling, but no. He becomes one with a card table folding chair.

So that was dissatisfying.

What bothers me the most about my dissatisfaction is that it was sneaky. When I first put down the book, I thought, “Wow. That was a good book. Lot to think about.” Then, after sleeping and taking a shower, and continuing to think about it, I realized that while it had given me a lot to think about, it was mostly about what could have happened or what should have happened, not anything deeper. It lulled me in with a false sense of depth.

The book is written beautifully. I didn’t want to put it down as I savored how each word was strung together, but in the end, the characters were mostly static and one-dimensional. Rose makes an attempt to change her life at the very end by starting a job as a dishwasher at her favorite restaurant and becoming an apprentice there, but then the last scene of the book switches back to her visiting Joseph in the hospital before he disappears for the final time. She asks him to meld into a certain chair if he’s going to do it again, but we’re given very little insight into her motivation for asking this.

It wasn’t a bad book, per se, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone looking for much more than a quick read.

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Print. ISBN 978-0-385-72096-0

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