Saturday, January 1, 2011

The unsatisfying nature of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I start 2011 with a simul-blog on a food-related title, shared with my very dear friend (and incidentally, the maid-of-honor at my wedding), Jess of Desperado Penguin.

Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake represents an interesting strain of magic realism in current U.S. literature. It has a really cool premise. And some really interesting characters. Still, I have to admit that in the end it’s not a book I can easily recommend to others.

The totally cool premise is this: a girl finds out that she can “taste” the emotions of whoever has prepared her food. This presents a particular predicament in her case, as her mother is unhappy in her marriage – hence, the “sadness” associated with the lemon cake so devotedly prepared for her birthday celebration. Ironically, Rose tastes her mother’s hollowness and bitterness every day, in every lovingly prepared school lunch and every carefully crafted family dinner. She comes to love the mechanized, mass-merchandised foods that are never touched by human hands, as their inhumanity allows her a respite from the feelings that are thrust upon her by others. This is a weird and counter-intuitive message, to say the least.

I see this book as an indictment of both the “helicopter” parent and the uninvolved parent, although the uninvolved parent is by far the biggest loser in Bender’s calculus.

If I was quiet enough, he wouldn’t send me to bed. We colluded in this way: as long as I didn’t announce that I was a kid, he wouldn’t rise up as parent, and for an hour, we could both have a little respite from our roles.

Rose’s helicopter mom counts on her brilliant older son to guide her through life. Her absentee father never bothers to share with his children the one piece of information that might have helped them make sense of their lives. But Bender never gives us an example of a “good” parent, so I’m not sure what she would change about either of the parents she portrays so unsympathetically in this book.

One of the unique aspects of this book is the relationship between Rose Edelstein and her older brother, Joseph. Rose, as might be expected, adores her older brother. But in the end the reader is left wondering how her selfish brother could possibly deserve her adoration. Only Joseph’s best friend, George, seems to care about each of the members of the family as an individual, but in the end he realizes he cannot make them be “normal,” no matter how much he cares for them. They are who they are – but George’s withdrawal leaves the family without an anchor in the normal world.

I have spent some time thinking about this book, and I have to admit I don’t understand what Bender wants me to take away from it. The ending is so unsatisfying that I felt agitated when I finished: “THAT’S where this was going?” was my final thought. It’s not a bad book, but not a good read either. The lack of quotation marks was annoying to me, a mark of laziness, not creativity, from my perspective. I think magic realism devotees will be interested in this highly Americanized iteration of the genre. But aside from that, it’s not my cup of tea – or my piece of cake. I can honestly admit that if I wasn’t simul-blogging this book with buddy Jess, I would have shelved it.


  1. I agree, I'd have a hard time recommending this to anyone in particular. There were aspects I sincerely enjoyed and the book made me think about a lot of things, but it was easy to get lost. It's interesting that you saw the focus as completely different than I did.

    But on to more important things - HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

  2. Thanks for the keen insights, Colleen!
    Shannon (Syracuse)

  3. Your review of this book reminds me of a passage in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and one of the characters makes chutney whihc is sour because she's sour, or something along those lines. i triend to refind it a few moneths ago but gave up. This post may prompt me to refind the passage as it's an intersting concept.

  4. I think at first this book really intrigued me and then I was seeing such mixed reviews now I don't know if I want to read it. I think I need to pass in the end to all the ones I know will be good. Great review though!

  5. Overall I enjoyed the book , but there were parts that were a tad odd. New Follower


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