Aimee Bender‘s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a really weird book. Though the eccentricity helped make this a truly unique read, there is such thing as being too weird. Let me explain.
For the most part, the fact that our main character, Rose, possesses the gift of being able to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she is eating, is intriguing and makes this book unique. This is weirdness that I can get on board with, and the reason I was so drawn to this book in the first place. Not only can she taste her mother’s deep sadness within the lemon cake she crafted for her birthday, but she also later discovers that she can pinpoint the location of the farms that certain ingredients in a dish hail from, among other things.
My biggest complaint about this strangely fascinating gift (or curse, as Rose tends to think of it) is that Bender doesn’t utilize it to its full potential.
Shortly after Rose discovers her new ability, she tries her best to eat as much processed food as possible, since this is the food that tastes more like a factory than feelings, therefore making her life a bit easier. Though it makes sense why Rose would go this route, it also takes her power more out of the story. The presence of this ability never goes away, but it wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be upon picking this book up. Rose does not learn to appreciate her power until the very end of the book, and even this revelation is somewhat overshadowed by other happenings going on in the story.
The dynamic of Rose’s family is arguably the heart of the novel more so than Rose’s ability to taste feelings. Still, Bender does a great job of crafting each family member as their own distinct person. Her mother means well, but she’s obviously self-absorbed and more focused on cultivating her own happiness rather than that of her children. Rose’s father is almost shockingly distant, seeming to have no interest in crafting a meaningful relationship with either Rose or her older brother, Joe, a highly intelligent boy who showcases intense and strange behavior. In Joe’s case, the way Bender describes him was a bit off-putting to me, but then again, maybe that was her intention.
At times it felt like this was more of a novel about Joe than Rose. Especially towards the end of the novel, because the focus seemed to shift to him. In fact, the biggest plot twist involves him, and this was one of those plot twists where I had to re-read the same section of a few pages about three times before I could fully comprehend what was happening. And once I realized what was happening, I wanted to throw this book across the room.
I don’t want to spoil the book in this review by revealing what that plot twist comprised of, but I can guarantee that no reader will see it coming. I know that Bender was trying to give the book some shock appeal with the twist (which she achieved), but it’s so blatantly absurd that it left me feeling incredibly puzzled and not impressed in the slightest.
I wish so badly that this book would have focused more on Rose’s freaky talent rather than her freaky brother. I did enjoy certain aspects of the family dynamic that Bender created, especially the deeper relationship Rose eventually forges with her dad. Also watching Rose come into her own was a very satisfying moment in the story. But too many elements felt way too weird and disconnected, making this a rather underwhelming read for me.