Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

A couple of days ago I posed some questions about Aimee Bender's critically acclaimed and seemingly polarizing novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Namely, is it fluffy (because it sounds fluffy)? What makes it such a critical hit?

So this is the way it went for me: I started seriously reading this novel on Friday or Saturday night. I dipped in and out over the course of Sunday and Monday, and yesterday I ripped through the last half.

Straight off...I FRACKIN' LOVED IT!!! And this does seem to be something of a love or hate kind of book. For the uninitiated, Rose Edelstein discovers just a few days before her ninth birthday that she tastes emotions in food. Specifically, the emotions of whomever made the food. She realizes some pretty serious things about her family and herself over time by eating their food and eventually the food she cooks for herself. All sounds fluffy and fine until we factor in her emotionally starved mother, her emotionally distant father, and her socially awkward, genius, recluse brother, Joseph.

What a mess of a family! They are decidedly dysfunctional, but this does not read like the typical dysfunctional family novel. This reads like a real dysfunctional family. There's not much serious drama until the last third of the book. They eat together, watch TV together, but much goes unsaid. All of them are suffering but they don't discuss it. They spread out to their separate corners, find comfort where they can, and just go on in whatever capacity they choose.

I think what really throws people off and polarizes readers is the path some of the characters choose to deal with their pain. Rose feels loneliness, longing, depression, anger. All through the foods that she eats. Those things come rushing in, and as a child she literally wants to tear her mouth out of her head. She retreats into processed foods that have hardly been touched by human hands. It allows her some solace from others' emotions. Other characters in the book feel pain as intensely but with fewer coping mechanisms. I'm dancing around this point a little to avoid spoilers, but this harsh choice was what made the book golden for me.

Here's where I don't know if I can avoid spoiler territory, so...



Joseph was, without a doubt, my favorite character. I found Rose intriguing and special and wonderful. I was proud of her for growing up and harnessing her "gift" and using it to explore life rather than stay locked within herself and motionless.

Joseph just didn't have that luxury or the coping skills. I found him incredibly sympathetic, even though he made an ass of himself for most of the book. When Rose finds out her father senses that he has some type of skill and stays away from hospitals because that's the key to his special skill, she also deduces that Joseph experiences pain in similar ways but without a filter. Maybe he just absorbs the emotions of others. I think this may be exactly right, especially given that he was so set on attending college and rooming with George. George was the only person he could stand to be around at length, and he was decidedly the most pleasant, optimistic, and well-adjusted in the novel. Without George he had no solace. He had no escape. He had no processed food to make it all stop rushing in. The better option was living alone, getting away from the crashes and waves of even his mother's love. What better option than to disappear and make it all stop.

End of Spoiler Alert!!!

What impressed me about Bender's novel is the writing and the story's unfolding. It all seems like lighthearted fare until the real weight of these characters' lives sneaks up. When I turned the final page last night, I just sat. I laid on my couch, I looked around, I thought. I considered writing this review then, but I couldn't quite leave the book. I read the final chapter four times.

I appreciate novels that can make me feel. This book certainly did, and it achieved these sensations in new and surprising ways. The concept of this book is not totally new and different, but the way Bender wrapped it all up and executed the twisty ending, was just perfect. It left me feeling a little sad and melancholy, but a whole lot of hope for Rose and a whole lot of longing for Joseph.

This was quite a way to start my Tournament of Books Reading Challenge, and I hope I haven't ruined all of the other contenders for myself. This one made it a good length of the way through the Tournament, and I can certainly understand why. I'm aching to discuss this book, so if you'd like to carry on the conversation in the comments, PLEASE POST SPOILER ALERTS!!! Comments without them will be deleted. But I do want to hear from you all, and if you'd prefer to e-mail, feel free.

This book will be with me for a good long time. A significant compliment for certain.


  1. I haven't read this yet, but I'm anxious to. It does seem like a book that people either love or hate.

  2. I didn't love it, mainly because I had originally though it would be fluffier. I read just enough before I started reading it to adjust that expectation. But I liked it and moreover I appreciated it.

  3. Okay...sorta spoilery comment ahead...

    I didn't love it, either...I had major issues with the chair legs. I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it (and I consider myself a pretty open-minded reader)...the tasting of emotions, yes, but the oneness with chair? Not so much. Also, I wasn't expecting so much Joseph at the end...I kept waiting to return to Rose. Maybe if it had been titled The Particular Sadness of Chair Legs I might have been okay with it all?

  4. This one has intrigued me for awhile now. I can't seem to resist reading about family dysfunction! And I can't resist a twisty ending!

  5. AHHHH! I am so happy that you love this book as much as I do!*fist pump*
    Did you think the dad was coping out of his gift? I think his gift was wonderful though he refused to use it or even acknowledge that Rose was suffering because she had one too.


    Joseph and the chair?! OMG! To become a chair so that you don't have to feel anything was so sad.
    Even after I finished the book, I still thought about Joseph and what he became.


    I love the ending.

  6. Umm..haven't read this one but definitely interested now that you enjoyed it so much. And I love books that have mixed reviews and feelings, it makes it that much more interesting to see how I will feel. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I was firmly in the I LOVE IT!!!! camp :) This book reminded me of Girl with the Glass Feet, which I also loved. I know people have labeled this magical realism, but both seemed much more fairy tale-esque. I'm glad this helped you get out of your reading rut!

    And, I can't remember Joseph's friend's name, but I was really hoping he and Rose would end up together. But really, I loved it!

  8. I didn't read past the SPOILER~! bits, but I do love your enthusiasm. I guess all I can say about dysfunctional families is that I hope this book isn't as awful as I thought the film Little Miss Sunshine was. A little dysfunction goes a long way with me, as I encounter so much in the families of children I teach. Still, I'm terrible interested in reading this novel.

  9. I've been holding out on reading this for some unknown reason. Like seriously, I have no clue why I'm so against reading it when so many have given it such glowing reviews. My contrary nature I guess. :)

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  11. I've had this book for a bit and wasn't sure if I should read it, so I'm excited you enjoyed it! People seem to have very strong thoughts about it for both loving or hating it.

  12. Chris already convinced me I need to read this, but really made me want to go pick it up right this minute. I really loved what you had to say about dysfunctional families--sounds so authentic.

  13. Kathy, it is, and I'm always intrigued by those love/hate books. I'm glad to find myself on the "love" side. :D

    Sassy, it definitely wasn't fluffy, but I did like that it was a quick, concise read. Bender's style is really straightforward and conversational and I can appreciate that in these days of zero attention span.

    LOL, Jill! I was ok with that particular "power." Somehow it struck me as appropriate for a science nerd?? I almost wondered if George knew. If it was something Joseph proposed to him at some point.

    Amen, Kathleen! I'm right there with you!

    Natasha, *fist pumps together* AWWWWESOME! I agree with everything you said about Joseph. Also, the dad, totally a cop out. I was so disappointed in him!

    Right on, Samantha!!! Can't wait to find out how you feel about it when you get a chance to read it.

    Read the Book, LOVE!!! And I'm so happy that you loved Girl with the Glass Feet. It's been on my wishlist for-ever. Totally want to read it that much more now!

    Bellezza, the dysfunction in this one is not as overwhelming as Little Miss Sunshine. They actually appear to be a normal family on the surface and they handle their dysfunction in very different ways than the movie. Looking forward to your thoughts if you decide to read this one. :)

    Trisha, do it for me. For real!

    Coffee and a Book Chick, I hope you loooove it as much as I did when you get around to it. It will stick with me for a good long while. It'll be a re-read at some point, too.

    LOL, Debi! Jump on it asap! Very authentic -- that's the perfect word!

  14. I am hearing good things about this... I will have to see what I think one of these days.

  15. I've read such mixed reviews about this book that I've hesitated to read it, but may need to re-evaluate after reading your review!!

  16. I just reviewed this book, too! I really enjoyed it as well. Great review!

  17. I am hugging and kissing in love with Aimee Bender's book, which is why it's so embarrassing that I still haven't read "Lemon Cake" yet. It's coming for me via library, I hope I love it to pieces, I hope, I hope. Have you read her short story collections? "Willful Creatures" just about unstitched me it was so great.

  18. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one so much! I was super excited to read it, then started to get dissuaded by the many negative reviews posting since its release... I'm going to go with my gut instinct and look to gobble up that cake!, and the story!

  19. Kailana, looking forward to your thoughts if you get around to it.

    Stephanie, if you decide to give it a go, I hope you adore it as much as I did!!!

    Great, Brooke! I'll have to check out your review.

    Booksaremyboyfriends (LOVE that screen name!), I haven't read any of her short stories yet, but I certainly will. I've had my eye on Willful Creatures for a good long time now.

    Go with your gut, Meg! The worst that can happen is you hate it! Though I hope not!

  20. I skipped over the spoilers as I want to read this one sometime just don't know when I'll get around to it. Glad to hear you loved it!!

  21. Hopefully sooner than later, Iliana! I want to know what you think of it.

  22. I'm pretty sure it was your review that caused me to read this. I'm so glad that I did! Like you, I loved it. It was so deeply moving, and normally I'm really 'scared' of dysfunctional stories. I don't know if I can say Joseph was my favorite, but he was so tragic. I loved SPOILER ALERT how it ended with Rose becoming a cook after she was properly nurtured by Madame and Monsieur. Have added a link to your review my own post now. XOXO

  23. You didn't think Joseph's "gift" was ...well...ridiculous? She's a good writer, but I found myself rolling my eyes and giving involuntary snorts of laughter throughout - but especially when Joseph's secret was revealed.

  24. I've been meaning to read this one. Great review.


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