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REVIEW: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

REVIEW SUMMARY: A quest disguised as a coming-of-age novel.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An ordinary nine year old girl receives an unexpected birthday present: a whole new concept of “emotion(al) eating.” This is the story of how she copes.

PROS: Rose is an ordinary nine year old with extraordinary self-possession. The humanity of the Edelstein family is what makes them believable. The supporting cast is a good one.
CONS: A minor character or two seems thrown in, but this feels like a nitpicky complaint. The major complaint is that there seems to be a “hole” in the story.
BOTTOM LINE: This book gave me mental whiplash. This is the first time I have literally had a “so that is what happened!” 24 hours after reading a book. This one will stay with you.

This is the first time I remember buying a book because of the title. I really needed to know about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Now that I do, I recommend that you find out, too. Here’s why.

Rose Edelstein seems to be a normal kid. On her ninth birthday, she discovers a hidden talent. She can taste the emotions that go into the preparation of food. Consider that for a minute. Her mother made her birthday cake. With a slice of lemon cake, Rose discovers that her mother is hiding a desperate unhappiness with her constant flitting from project to project, searching for fulfillment. Rose can taste her mother’s search for what she doesn’t have in her birthday cake.

Here, Rose’s journey begins. She can no longer eat without fear of what she will taste – what she will find out about the people around her. At a loss for what to do, she enlists the help of her older brother’s best friend, George. George is skeptical, but he is a scientist at heart, even as an eighth grader. After a little initial experimentation in the family kitchen, George and Rose’s reluctant brother Joseph take her to the local bakery to test the effects when food is cooked by complete strangers. Rose is still plagued.

It feels wrong to call this a coming-of-age story; it’s more of a quest. As we follow Rose from age 9 to age 22, she starts to understand that there is no way to fix this. She can’t get over it, so she can only get through it. Her older brother Joseph’s parallel quest is difficult and frustrating to follow at times. Joseph’s quest produced my whiplash moment.

There is an element of social commentary to this book. In this American culture where we constantly hear about obesity and that we must pay more attention to our food, a book about a young woman’s search to mitigate the emotional effects of eating freshly prepared food has an ironic ring.

Early on in the book, Rose talks of food feeling “empty.” In places, the story echoes with that empty feeling. This can be seen two ways: as a counterbalance to the sensory overload of the food or to underscore the empty feelings in the relationships between the members of the Edelstein family. Either way, it is quite likely to leave the reader wondering what happened, and what they missed.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is that there is no brightly packaged happy ending. What does happen is a very realistic ending. Rose’s mother is very much the same as she has been from the beginning. Rose’s father, who clearly understands more than he did to begin with, chooses not to take action on his new knowledge. As it has been from the beginning, Rose is the extraordinary hero of an otherwise ordinary story because she took the action to change her own course.

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