Book Review: Amy Bender, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even cursed taste buds can’t discern. – Official book summary

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like a sustained dream – at times normal-feeling, then a little odd, then very unsettling, intriguing. And also like a dream, Lemon Cake ends with some of the most intriguing questions raised by Aimee Bender ultimately unanswered; the reader sees a little light, a few, small things become a bit clearer, and then the dream is over, and the reader is lifted out of it, left with a fascination for the dream world and, most of all, the emotional residue.

I think that’s my favorite aspect of this book – the emotional effects that Bender’s writing produced. Much like Rose discovers that she can use the medium of taste to feel emotions in a strange, unresolved way, Bender’s language and imagery accomplished this same transaction through the medium of words. I think my favorite moment of the novel was Rose’s discovery of her brother Joseph, sitting in his apartment, quiet, alone, in the midst of a literal disappearing act – the leg of a chair strangely substituted for his own leg. I felt something funny in my stomach that must have been akin to what Rose felt, seeing a chair leg sitting inside of her brother’s shoe – uneasiness, fear, confusion, a sense of something very wrong unfolding, but more than anything else, pure captivation.

The novel also serves as a sort of coming-of-age story, following Rose from the day she first discovers her ability throughout the remainder of her education, and into her post-academic life. These parts of the story are remarkably human, in the context of the oddities that Bender litters throughout the text: Rose struggles to understand why her parents’ marriage is disintegrating, she navigates her way through friendships that begin to fail as high school comes to an end, she tries to manage a long-standing crush on her brother’s best friend but ends up fooling around with a jock who means nothing to her instead. And Bender also gives the reader a sense of family history, which gives even greater depth to the world of the novel.

Lemon Cake is a great piece of magical realism, as is the collection of Bender’s short stories which I’ve also read, Willful Creatures. It’s certainly not for everyone, and Bender’s refusal to answer what are perhaps the most captivating questions she raises – the questions of magical realism – will leave some readers frustrated and unsatisfied. But if you feel like taking a trip into a bizarre story world for a little while, and if you can accept from the outset that, like a dream, the pieces aren’t always going to fit together or be properly explained to you, then I definitely recommend The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Rating: 3.5/5

-Matt R. Metzler

You can buy a used copy of this book on the Marketplace for less than $5.

Also recommended: Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel