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Reading: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As the name suggests, sadness is an enduring theme of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s about a girl named Rose who, just as she is turning nine years old, is suddenly able to taste in food the emotions of the person who prepared it. She makes the discovery upon eating the titular lemon cake, lovingly prepared by her mother, but so full of sadness and dissatisfaction that Rose can’t even pretend to enjoy it.

Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.

Food becomes a minefield, exposing Rose to the emotions everybody is trying to hide. The sadness of openly happy people, the rage of the quiet ones and, above all others, her mother’s desperate need for something to fulfil her. Rose learns early on that she can’t explain what is happening to her and finds solace in junk food, snacks and other heavily-processed items, where the human involvement is distant and minimal.

The story jumps around a little but progresses steadily forward in time, as Rose tries to avoid her ability and just exist with her family. Her mother flits from project to project until she finds something that can fill that emptiness within her, and fawns over Rose’s older brother, Joseph. Joseph is brilliant but can’t connect with people, shutting himself away physically and emotionally. Her father, a man who seemed to approach having a family as a life event to tick off his list, has no way to truly communicate with any of them.

The best way I can describe it is just that my father was a fairly focused man, a smart one with a core of simplicity who had ended up with three highly complicated people sharing the household with him: a wife who seemed raw with loneliness, a son whose gaze was so unsettling people had to shove cereal boxes at him to get a break, and a daughter who couldn’t even eat a regular school lunch without having to take a fifteen-minute walk to recover. Who were these people?

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is not a story about powers (there are large portions of the book where Rose’s ability is mostly irrelevant), not of some grand revelation about where the ability comes from or some fated event where everything comes together. Rose’s ability is a means for her to truly see people and to understand that everybody is hiding their real feelings, including herself, and ultimately to realise that knowing the truth doesn’t really enable her to do anything about it. People hide their true feelings even from themselves, and have to work things out in their own way, or they’ll never get help. That’s particularly sad.

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