My Rating: 5 stars
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is an odd and delightful coming-of-age story recommended to me by my roommate. And apparently she has great taste because I fell in love with it! Just before her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein realizes she can taste more than just lemon and chocolate in her mother’s homemade cake. She can also taste her mother’s despair and depression. Rose must now learn to navigate meals and life while being able to taste emotions in everything she eats. I listen to the audiobook of this, which is read by Aimee Bender herself. She has a lovely reading voice that did justice to her simple yet beautiful writing.
My favorite part of the book was Rose as a character. We follow her from the time she’s nine until she is in her twenties, and by the end, I felt I knew her well. Not only that, but she felt real. Her reaction to finding out she can taste the feelings in food is exactly how you would expect a nine-year-old to react. She doesn’t know what’s happening, she doesn’t understand a lot of the feelings she’s encountering, and she doesn’t have the language to explain it. The way she explains it to George and her complete meltdown to her mother fits the character of a nine-year-old. But as she grows older, her language and reactions evolve. I loved seeing the change.
The main focus of this book is Rose’s relationships with her parents, her brother, and her brother’s best friend, George. Bender does such a wonderful job crafting these relationships; they are so deep and nuanced. A large part of the story is Rose truly getting to know her mother, looking past her always happy façade and discovering the sadness beneath. But she also starts learning things about her brother, Joseph, and her father. Joseph’s part of the story actually may be the part that resonated with me the most. But my favorite of Rose’s relationships is the one she has with George. He is her childhood crush, and honestly, I was a little in love with him too. He’s such a kind and gentle character, and I loved all of their interactions
I’d say this book is firmly in the magical realism subgenre. I read this genre occasionally and tend to enjoy it, but I am almost always left at least slightly confused by it. There is always some confusing part that I’m just never able to quite wrap my head around. But that didn’t happen here. Everything is crystal clear, even when it is completely outlandish. I think it has something to do with Bender’s simple and straightforward writing. Most other writers I’ve read who use magical realism also have dense prose, which makes already strange things even more confusing. I really loved the book for this, and it’s probably one of my favorites in the subgenre now.
Overall, this is as beautifully done coming-of-age story with a protagonist that I adored. It’s relatable and readable despite all the moments of magical realism. It’s most likely going on my list of favorite books of 2020, and I’d highly recommend picking it up.