‘Lemon Cake’ A Book Worth Eating Up

‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

c. 2010, Doubleday


304 pages

The recipe is the original, in her handwriting. You’ve figured out that a “handful” equals one cup and a “pinch” is a quarter teaspoon. You’ve measured and spooned and sifted faithfully.

So why can’t you get anything to taste the way Grandma made it? You wish she was around to tell. What mysterious addition made food different when it came from her kitchen?

Ask Rose. There’s always something extra in her food, but in the new book “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender, it’s rarely edible.

It started on the cusp of Rose Edelstein’s ninth birthday. Rose’s mother was excited to have time to bake a special cake, a lemon one from a delicious-sounding recipe. From the oven, it smelled wonderful, but one bite and Rose knew something was wrong. Despair overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t finish.

Hardly anyone would believe her. Rose’s father was always working, and when he was home, he was exhausted and barely had energy for watching television. Her brother, Joseph, was a strange boy who loved math and physics and being alone. Her mother, the source of all sad food, was wrapped up in a new job that was fulfilling in a new-job sort of way. The only person who didn’t scoff was George, Joseph’s best friend, and Rose loved him for it.

By age 12, the “gift” was honed so well that Rose could taste the difference between oranges from Florida and oranges from California. Her tongue knew each factory, each grass-feeding beef farm, every garden from every state. She tasted anger and happiness, love and machinery. Her odd ability never left her, and it was strong enough to know that her mother was having an affair.

At age 17, Rose cooked her first meal and ate it, not recognizing the factory taste of herself. That was the year Joseph disappeared for the last time, her mother started sleeping in his old bed night after night and Rose’s father took up jogging after dark. It was the year Rose made a fool of herself over George.

But it was also the year Rose found the restaurant she’d been searching for all her life. There, spinach was spinach and onions had no meaning. There, food was for savoring, and secrets were safe.

There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe Bender’s latest novel: quirky, weird, odd. Also: compelling, addictive. The ultimate fact is that “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” is probably the strangest book you’ll never want to put down.

But here’s the thing: I say that with no small amount of amazement. I wasn’t too keen on the plot of this book at first, but Bender’s precocious Rose made me stay. I was glad I did because this book turned out to be purely irresistible.

Perfect for vacationing, weekend reading or for book groups, I think you’ll like “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” If you’re in the mood for something different, you’ll eat this book up.

Terri Schlichenmeyer collects books, tigers, trivia and book bags. She has also been accused of collecting dust now and then.

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