This is a review of the book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. The first thing that strikes you about this novel is, understandably enough, the title. It’s evocative yet teasing – you get an impression from it but you’re not really sure what it’s about. After all, how can lemon cake be sad?
The second thing that strikes you when you start reading is the way Bender treats dialogue, which is without quote marks /inverted commas / whatever you want to call them. Third paragraph in you get the first taste of this, which I admit takes some getting used to, viz:
How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame.
At that point I found myself flicking through the book, wondering if this was how dialogue was done the whole way through. The answer is yes. It’s clearly a stylistic choice, but it does mean that the way some of it is written is stilted, as you have to have a he said/she said type of tag for every item of speech. Otherwise, it would be seen as internal musing from the narrator. Perhaps if it wasn’t written in the first person it might have felt cleaner, I’m not sure, but as I said it did take a little while to get the hang of it.
Once you get past that, it’s quite a haunting book. I was happy to suspend disbelief for the main premise of the plot, which was that a young girl suddenly acquires the ability to absorb people’s emotions from the food they make. It starts on her birthday when her cheerful, loving mother makes her a lemon cake, and at the first bite all she can taste is sadness and desperation. Hence, the title. It’s a difficult ability to live with, as it permeates every part of her life – she can identify which farms grew produce, which factories put things together, what the mood of the person who was stirring it was.
While I was perfectly happy to accept this ability, though, I was less open to the world of her brother. A gifted yet socially isolated boy, he has moments where he just disappears, and no one can find him until he just as suddenly re-appears, seemingly no worse for wear. When the reason for that was revealed late in the book, I found my suspension of disbelief suddenly voided. Rose, the narrator, had a story I could go along with. Joseph, the brother, though – his story I had much more trouble with.
This, of course, is likely to be something that just bothered me, and there are bound to be thousands of other people who have read this book who have no difficulty with it at all. However, for me it meant that my enjoyment of the book diminished towards the end. While I found the writing style and Rose’s story haunting, evocative and invading my dreams at night, I found Joseph’s story vague, bizarre and obtuse. Sure, the fact that it was told from Rose’s point of view meant that of course the narrative would give more information about her own condition, but I still found it unsatisfying, like it was something the author hadn’t planned and needed to find a resolution to. I’m probably wrong, but that was how it felt to me.
Beside that, I did enjoy this book. The writing is excellent and the plot, particularly as it concerns Rose, is original and thought-provoking. The title got my attention and the story drew me in quickly. I’m only sorry that the ending wasn’t more to my tastes.