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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

This book is one of the ones that sneaks up on you. I wouldn’t go right out and say that I loved it, but I definitely grew to feel some sort of moderately deep affection for it towards the end. This is a personal preference, but I don’t really like adult novels (especially literary ones) written from the POV of children. Or, rather, I don’t like it when you can’t tell if it’s actually the child’s POV, or the POV of that person when they’re an adult looking back on their childhood. When I first started reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I thought it was being told from the POV of the main character, Rose, as a child, but the farther I got, the more I realized that it was actually being told from the POV of Rose as an adult, sometime in the future, although it was unclear to me when I finished exactly when in the future that was. So, some demerits for confusion right off the bat.

The story is a fairly simple one. When Rose is nine, she discovers she has a heretofor unknown secret ability—she can taste people’s emotions in the food that they make. She realizes this after eating a piece of lemon cake her mother baked and tasting her mother’s despair and loneliness in it, which, as you can imagine, is fucking terrifying for a nine-year-old. Because this is a literary novel and not a paranormal romance, nothing really happens because of Rose’s ability; she just has it, and for the next eight years she does the best she can to live off prepackaged foods (which are so processed the emotions, if they ever existed, are masked) and avoid her mother’s cooking, although occasionally she slips and finds out something she probably shouldn’t know.

The real thrust of the novel is contained in the—what else?—relationships between its main characters. There’s Rose’s mother, who is a sort of free spirit looking for her purpose in life (spoiler: it’s not “being a mom”); Rose’s father, who goes through his life like it’s one long checklist (Get Married: check; Have a Son: check; Have a Daughter: check; Buy a House: check; Get a Law Degree: check) and doesn’t manage to really know his family; Rose, aforementioned emotion taster; her brother, Joseph, whose strange on-the-spectrum behavior eventually resolves itself in an unexpected way, which was actually the reason I ended up liking the book; and George, Joseph’s best friend and the only person who takes Rose’s ability seriously for a long time—obviously, she’s desperately in love with him.

Look, this is not a long book, but it felt long. The prose is lovely, sure, but for some reason, even though it’s written in this intimate first person style, I felt very distanced from the characters, especially Joseph. I understood that you were supposed to feel distanced from him because Rose did, and find his behavior odd because it was odd, but I literally had to reread several pages to figure out exactly what was going on at some points, and that’s unnecessary. Given the muddiness of the premise, it’s not surprising that the book lacked clarity, but it’s also not an excuse. Right?

Okay, but also this book contained my BIGGEST PET PEEVE EVER: no quotation marks. I’m sorry, stop it. How pretentious. This book is literally quiet, because, at least punctuationally speaking, nobody ever talks in it. Every sentence seems hushed, and even if that was the intended effect, it wasn’t compelling and it was a distraction. After I finished Lemon Cake, I actually read yet another book without quotation marks, QUITE by accident I assure you, and I was further offended. What is up, writers? Get over yourselves.

It shouldn’t shock you that this book is pretty damn sad, since it has the word “sadness” in the title, but I was a little taken aback that I actually felt sad at the end, since for a long time it didn’t really matter to me what happened to any of the characters. But the end had that sort of gut-wrenching hopelessness that I love in doses, and while I wouldn’t run right out and tell everyone to read this book, I can see why, in the end, it’s done as well as it has.

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  1. Blogger Donna | 7:17 PM |  

    Thank you so much for the comment about the lack of punctuation, namely quotation marks! That drove me NUTS! I am with you in the fact that I didn't love this book, but I didn't hate it, I don't really know how I feel about it. And you are right that although it wasn't long, it felt long. Maybe it was all of the rereading I did trying to figure the dialog!

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