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.

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