Aimee Bender – ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’

It’s nice (and rare!) to begin a book and not have the slightest idea what to expect from it, particularly if what you end up getting is compelling and moving.

This was a classic case of buying a book for the title and hoping it lived up to its premise. Because the idea behind the book – that 9-year-old Rose Edelstein can feel the emotions of the people who prepared her food as she eats it – is a brilliant idea.

Rose lives in Los Angeles, ‘sandwiched between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose’, and until her ninth birthday her life has been uncomplicated. Then, on a warm, spring day her mother bakes her a lemon-chocolate birthday cake and, in her first bite, Rose can suddenly taste the empty, sad desperation of her mother’s inner life:

“I could absolutely taste the chocolate…but…it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…”

As Rose grows, her misplaced gift turns her from an outgoing, smiley little girl into a more reclusive, troubled young adult. She doesn’t just feel the hollow at the heart of her mother’s life, she begins to understand the growing distance between her parents. She feels the anger of the cafe worker who made her cookies, tastes the tangy rounded taste that distinguishes a California orange from one grown in Florida. Food becomes a minefield that must be traversed on tiptoes and the only relief she can find is in the blandness of junk food, made and packaged with the minimum human interference, empty in more ways than just taste.

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Around her, the secret lives of her family are flayed open and laid bare for her to see. The idea is horrifying.

As the plot develops, Rose’s story becomes enmeshed with that of her brother Joseph who is clearly battling his own demons.

This was such a clever and enjoyable book. Putting food at the heart of Rose’s experiences is an ingenious way to explore the twisting nature of family dynamics and the relationships between people. People have such complex relationships with food, in many ways mirroring those that they have with people, as it becomes overlaid with guilt, joy, sadness, reward, expectation and care. Food is also so symbolic in our lives: a home-cooked favourite dinner when you’re visiting family is also a way of saying ‘I love you’. But Bender does take the story further – this is no ‘one-trick pony’. The book had really insightful things to say about families and the ties that both bind and sever. When the story shifts the focus to Joseph it gets really quite dark indeed.

Overall this was an emotional, satisfying read that planted little seeds of thought that were far-reaching.

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