‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

I avoided this book for a long time. There was just something about the title and basic premise—a nine-year-old discovers her unique ability to channel others’ emotions through their cooking—that made me think: I’m not going to like this. However, out came the paperback edition and the need for another title to bring along with me on my honeymoon and I decided to give it a try. I had the good fortune of reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on the beach in Costa Rica, but even if I hadn’t, I would still consider it a great book. Due to its surreal, offbeat plot devices this book will not be for everyone; however, readers looking for a unique take on the modern family experience are sure to love it as much as I do.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake takes place as narrator Rose Edelstein comes of age. When we first meet Rose she is a perceptive nine-year-old who has recently discovered her talent for reading the emotions of others by tasting the foods they have prepared. Her discoveries prove to be alarming as she detects her mother’s desperation, her brother’s isolation and scores of complications in the lives of anonymous food handlers. As Rose’s gift follows her throughout her adolescence and into early adulthood she comes to terms with, if not always understanding, her family’s dysfunction.

For me, the best section of the book is the portion dedicated to Joseph, Rose’s socially inept science-obsessed older brother. Joseph has few friends and dedicates himself fully to the study of science, alienating not only other people, but other disciplines in the process. As Rose grows into her “talent”, she comes to realize that her brother has been endowed with one as well. However, Joseph is unfortunately unable to integrate his talent into his life as seamlessly as Rose is eventually able to with hers.

Finally, a review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake should not be concluded without mention of it as a wonderful example of food writing. The eponymous lemon cake, freshly baked cookies, garlic-infused pasta dinners and classic French dishes are all described in mouth-watering detail as the book moves along. In fact, the food becomes so much a part of the novel I would love to see Bender release a recipe book companion!

I was surprised to love Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as much as I did. This novel comes recommended to anyone looking for a new take on the classic theme of the dysfunctional family.

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