So Rose Edelstein discovers that she can find out her mother's emotions when she takes a bite of the lemon cake her mother baked for her ninth birthday. In that instant, Rose detected a hollowness, a loneliness, in the lemon cake. Eventually, as she learns to come to grips with her particular gift, she soon finds out that these "tastes" are actually the feelings that the persons have at the time they make the dish.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a novel that touches heavily on the family. And the Edelsteins make up a family that's unbearably sad. Rose's mother carries on an affair that lasts for years, even though she puts up this cheery veneer every time she's home. Rose's father can't seem to bear to go to hospitals, and seems oblivious to his wife's affair. Through the different emotions that Rose encounters during family meals, she gets to discover all the painful words left unsaid, the missed connections, and the frustrations of her family.
Apparently, it's not just Rose who is blessed/cursed with a gift. Her brother, Joseph, can make himself disappear for several months, eventually coming back looking tired, dehydrated, and basically clinging to life. Joseph's sadness is one that's not very easy to read. He was the one who supposedly had the brains in the family. But his potential is not realized, beginning with the fact that he failed to secure a spot at Cal Tech.
Rose doesn't fully learn to appreciate her extraordinary ability. For her, every meal taken at home is torture. She becomes obsessed with the vending machine in her school, who dispenses factory-made junk food. I can empathize. I'd rather eat a Twinkie than have a home-made omelet wherein I can taste all the sadness that goes with it. So yes, for me, Rose's ability is in fact a curse.
Bender writes beautifully. Her prose is lyrical without being too cloying. In a way, the reader can "taste" the sadness in her prose, the emptiness that clings to the Edelsteins. And I find it very apt that food is used as the conduit for the emotions. One can't just say that her or she is feeling unhappy; that person has to find a way to make the other person feel his unhappiness. What better way than to let that person consumer your emotions. Call it transference, if you will.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake looks like a very light read. Well, it is, at around 200 pages. But it's dense with drama and its characters fully realized. You feel sad for Rose, Joseph, their parents. You want to reach the end to find out if everything goes well with each of them. It's a heartbreaking novel, this one. But you'll still be happy that you finish it.
Read this book if:
- You value the importance of shared meal times.
- You're super picky with your food.
- You love lemon cakes.