Jusst before her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she can taste the emotions of everyone who has had a hand in making her food - a weird quirk that is much more of a curse than it sounds, because like food, humans are a complex creation with far more going on inside them than it appears on the outside. The worst thing for Rose is when she eats homemade food as she finds out far more than she ought about her closest loved ones. The lemon cake of the title, baked by her jolly and creative mother, tastes empty. Incomplete.
The book follows Rose through her childhood as she tries to live a normal life with this curse. Too many people contribute towards the simplest sandwich, which means every bite Rose eats is a whirlwind of conflicting feelings. It's heartbreaking to see such an essential and normally enjoyable part of life being a burden to a small girl. She also has to deal with her family's secrets. To an outsider, they are a rather average family, each member having their "little ways" but nothing out of the ordinary. Her dad is a very normal, all-American family man and businessman, her brother Joseph showing signs of something like Autism/Asberger's - a scientific genius who has no social skills and does not get the recognition at school he deserves. Mom, the main cook of the family, despite her cheerful exterior, is unfulfilled, disappointed, and Rose can tell instantly from the taste of her cooking when she embarks upon an affair with a colleague.
I found the first half of the novel to be very readable magic realism, a fascinating concept that was written in such a way as to make you really appreciate food, family and feelings. These things are portrayed as varied, sometimes contradictory, all mixed up together to give a great impression of the unique way in which Rose views the world - an impressive feat.
In part two of the novel, when our characters are several years older, Bender focuses more upon Joseph, Rose's elder brother. He is still unsocial to the point of reclusiveness, and now he has his own apartment, gives the family much cause for concern by frequently disappearing without explanation. When his mystery is solved, I felt that the book became something else, moving away from the magical realism to become just plain surreal, and I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief. I came to understand what Aimee Bender was aiming for, but did not think she was entirely successful.
Still, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a fascinating, original concept which explores what it means to be human. The small cast is brought to life well, leaving me really feeling that I had got to know Rose, her family and friends inside out. The writing is beautiful and rich, but I was left feeling as though something was missing from the story, that I couldn't quite place.