Don’t be fooled. Just because there’s cake in the title, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is neither tasty nor satisfying. But it does have a bittersweet freshness that draws you in and makes you want to gobble up the whole book in one setting.
The dysfunctional Edelstein family has the stereotypical suburban parents, with a mother yearning for something more in her life (familiar sounding theme?), and a father who overworks and is almost uncommunicative. Rose is the star of the action, with her unrealistic magical talent for perceiving the emotions of whoever makes the food, from her mother’s unhappiness stirred into her lemon birthday cake to the disgruntled orange picker ‘s influence on the juice.
Do you remember Like Water for Chocolate? In Esquivel’s book, the cook stirs her emotions into the pot. In Bender’s book, Rose can taste those emotions, as well as the source of each ingredient – the anger of the laborer who picked the parsley or the bitterness of the factory workers who packaged the cereal. Desserts are especially ripe for interpretation of the baker’s emotions – cookies and cakes become sources of despair as Rose finds out more than she wants to know – maybe more than she should know.
Rose’s brother,Joseph, nicely completes the family circle as a young science prodigy who grows up to be the typical morose teenager. Life almost seems pastoral, until suddenly Bender takes you into the twilight zone.
Joseph doesn’t seem to be able to demonstrate his potential and his college applications are denied. At first, he seems to be the misunderstood genius, working on his own mathematical equations to improve the universe – until he disappears. How he disappears takes the story into science fiction or fantasy land, but his first disappearance will compel you to want to know more – how, where, why. By the end of the novel, Bender will answer your questions – literally, figuratively, metaphysically.
Bender could be making a statement about family life, about how it’s impossible to understand other people’s issues, or maybe about how a young girl grows into her talents.
Maybe that’s a clue, or, as Robert Frost says, sometimes a poem is just a poem –or in this case, a story just a story – not sure what kind of taste it will leave you with – certainly not one you expect.