Books That Make You Go Hmm: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

29th March 2012

Because who doesn’t need a little C&C Music Factory on a Thursday??

Sometimes a book isn’t good or bad. Sometimes a book makes you go “hmmm” and think long and hard about what exactly you’ve just read. Though it can be frustrating to not feel completely sure about a book, I think there’s value in that, as in anything else.

This is one strange little book.

Rose is about to turn 9 when her mother bakes her favorite cake: lemon with chocolate frosting. Except the cake doesn’t taste like lemon or chocolate. It tastes like despair.

The taste frightens Rose, who at 9 can sense her mother’s desperation in her hugs and in the aspirin she takes and her frantic search for something she’s good at. One day it’s baking, then home improvement, and finally woodworking. Her father watching, exasperated, but willing to let his wife explore. Her brother Joseph in his own world, increasingly absent.

The Edelstein family is not all that strange up close. They are disconnected, surely. They are uncommunicative, certainly. But as Rose’s peculiar taste lingers, she learns more about each of them than she could ever possibly want, and that knowledge pushes her beyond them and separate from others as she reaches adolescence and grows into an adult.

Even then, she is unable to reconcile what she tastes with the people she knows and loves. Her brother is silent and withdrawn, working on a physics experiment and disappearing at times. Her mother, obsessed with Joseph’s well being, doesn’t see how much her daughter needs her, and Rose’s father tries but ultimately fails at bridging the gaps left in this odd family.

Originally, I thought this book would be very similar to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which I think is a bit of poetic genius at times. In that book, however, the main character’s emotions are cooked into the food she creates, thus affecting everyone who tastes it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is quite opposite, and while I think the premise is really, really fascinating, the book sort of left me. The book I wanted to read was about Rose having this affliction, coming to terms with it in her own way, and either realizing she must do the same with her family or attempt to change her life. The book I read became more and more odd and muddled when Rose’s brother is not just disappearing from his apartment but apparently from the universe as well. Though there are hints to this effect as you read, the scenes where it is realized are creepy and really out there. While Rose’s odd taste certainly requires a temporary suspension of disbelief, Joseph’s skill is scientific. The two are at odds, so while I was cognizant of accepting one, I really couldn’t accept the other.

Bender is an incredibly talented writer, but I have to wonder if I just missed something or if the book really did end that much out in left field.

So this book made me go hmm, but not in an altogether bad way. The more I read, though, the more I wish there were elements of books that were left out or changed to make an odd book a truly great one.

Have you read this one? Or do you have any books that make you go hmmm?

Other reviews:
Fat Books Thin Women
Book Chatter
Katie’s Book Blog
Pop Culture Nerd

  • I haven’t read this book, but I have heard mixed things about it.

    I did have to stop by though to say…love this song!

    • Haha! Me too. Brings me back. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • I think the book did end out way out in left field. The more I think back on this novel, the more I’m baffled by the story of Rose’s brother…I mean, turning into a CHAIR? The whole thing was just weird, and seemed not as carefully done as Rose’s story. I think that, as you write, the story became more muddled as Bender shifted away from Rose to Rose’s brother.

    • I KNOW! It was just so incredibly odd in an already-odd story. The more I saw it going in that direction, the more worried I became.

  • Laura Rowsell

    I was baffled by this book! Completely baffled! Cause I was all into the premise of it, but the execution just didn’t work at all for me. It was like Bender had this interesting idea, and then had no idea what to do with it at all so it just went all over the place. Yeah, I really didn’t like it because of that.

    • I agree. I think the initial idea was so cool. It’s books like this that make me really want to sit down and ask the author – where did this come from? For the most part, I don’t like author interviews, but I would be interested to know where Joseph and his abilities came from.


    A friend and I read it at the same time and she did t like it as much as I did because she he never encountered Magical Realism before. But I did appreciate how Rose’s voice evolved as she got older.

    • Yeah – and I didn’t even mention the magical realism because once you add Joseph to the mix, I’m not sure what exactly you have. Glad you enjoyed it, though.

  • I read this book last summer and really loved it. I’d read Aimee Bender’s short stories before and had the privilege of listening to her give a talk/reading at my school. She really is a wonderful writer. But I suppose I’m quite biased towards magical realism. I agree the ending was a little strange, but that’s very Aimee Bender-she’s not afraid to smack you in the face with something that’s out of the box (e.g. see her story about the little man/big man “End of the Line” *note this story is pretty graphic/disturbing/not pg-13).

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Shannon! I, too, really enjoy magical realism, but as I mentioned to someone else who commented, the end felt like magical realism joined with science, and it just didn’t work for me.

      I definitely want to read more from her, though, as I’ve heard her short stories are great. Thanks for the rec!

  • Yvette

    Oh for sure, Jenn. I always go ‘..hmmmm…..!’ when I’m reading anything by China Mieville – but I go on reading him anyway. I love his rampaging imagination.

    This doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’d ordinarily pick up and read, but maybe I’ll take a look just to be perverse. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I like magical realism if written very well.

    • I keep trying to pick up his books at the library. They’re ALWAYS checked out. Hmm. I’ll definitely have to keep trying.

  • Sheila (Book Journey)

    I picked this one up a few months ago and I still havent finished it. Flat is a good word for what I read of it… I just was not connecting.

    • Sheila – I can definitely see why you would feel that way. It’s hard for me to describe, but the writing did sort of feel detached, almost observatory the way Rose tells it. Which makes sense in part because of what she’s going through. She feels like an observer rather than a member of her family. Interesting.

  • I read this last year, and I agree–it’s a bit strange, but it’s really interesting. I still puzzle over the bit about Rose’s brother and can’t quite decide how I feel about it. But I thought that the premise was fascinating and really enjoyed the book–it wasn’t at all what I expected.

    • It IS interesting. That’s why I didn’t want to reflect on it negatively. It was strange but also really wonderful at parts.

  • Diana

    Your review of this book said exactly what I have been thinking. I read this book about a year ago, and it still creeps into my memory. This book also made me go “hmmm”. I loved the idea of Rose being able to “taste” what someone was feeling by eating what they baked. As I read, I just couldn’t wrap my head around Rose’s brother. His character was a bit disturbing and the ending left me perplexed. Like you, I don’t think I totally disliked this book, the ending was just “What? Did I just read that??” Hmmm…..

    • It’s an odd experience to think so much about a book but not really know where you stand. Like you, I really loved the idea behind Rose. Just an odd, odd book.