Aimee Bender · books · Cake · criticism · high-concept · Magic Realism · reading · review

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

After finishing this book I went and had a look around the internet for other peoples thoughts on it and found one review on goodreads saying that this book isn’t proper Magic Realism. I’m going to disagree and say that that is exactly what this book is. It is the story of a girl, told in several stages of her youth, who can taste emotion in food. Whatever feelings were being experienced by the chef, she can taste in the finished meal. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Midnight’s Children in the way it sets itself up. A young person with a magical ability is used as a vehicle to explore larger issues. In Midnight’s Children it is the birth of India’s independence, in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake it is Rose’s dysfunctional family.

The trouble with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (wonderful title by the way), is that the magical element and realism element never quite seem to come together properly. For much of the book Rose fights against her talent, choosing to eat only factory produced food, and so some of the conceits power is lessened. Toward the beginning there is a scene where a young Rose and her brothers friend go to a shop and taste cookies to test what she can do. This, for me, was the point where the book seemed like it was going to come alive, and then instead she decides not to use this ability of hers and the book goes off somewhere else. It’s not that where the book goes instead is bad, it just felt like a missed opportunity. In writing it is considered good form to show rather than tell, and this could have allowed us to be shown hidden emotions. There could have been really exciting juxtapositions between what someone was saying and what they were feeling. But instead there weren’t.

This is not to say that it is a bad book. Much of what happens while Rose is refusing to taste emotions is excellently done. I especially enjoyed the awkward relationship between Rose and her father.

The father, for much of the book seems a superfluous character; literally on the sidelines of the story as he witnesses the birth of his daughter through a pair of binoculars from the street outside the hospital. Later he becomes more fully depicted, and in doing so somewhat sidelines the mother, who has been a much more active character. It’s a clever twist, which I am trying very hard not to spoil for anyone that might read it.

I feel very split about this book. It is beautifully written and charming at times, and seems to frustratingly miss the mark at others. The concept of tasting emotion was an intriguing one, but rather than really tasting emotion, all Rose ever really tastes is something over-whelming that she doesn’t like. Happiness, joy, contentment; these are not really explored. Rose, as a central protagonist, seems a little too passive; the central concept of tasting emotion seems underused. The weirdness toward the end of the book feels a little contrived. But there’s just something about it that is haunting and memorable.

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