A subtle but creative novel with a strong message at its heart.
On her ninth birthday Rose Edelstein is delighted to find that her mother has made her a chocolate lemon cake. Unable to resist she takes a slice whilst her mother sleeps only to find the cake tastes of loneliness and hunger; each morsel full of a crippling sadness that Rose quickly identifies as her own mothers feelings. From cookies that taste of anger to roast beef that reveals adultery Rose realizes she has a very special gift that allows her to taste a full and true range of emotions in all of the food she eats.
But for innocent nine-year old Rose the gift is more of a curse, she can’t bear the reality which it forces her to see of the life around her. She can’t avoid the truth of her mother’s life outside of the family home, or her distant fathers abstract attitude anymore than she can ignore he unreachable brother Joseph who constantly clashes with the world.
Unable to escape the feelings in all food Rose opts for the most generic man-made products she can find giving her a strange and painful relationship with her food and a detachment from the real world.
In her attempt to hold together the suffering and troubles of her family Rose seems to remain trapped in time as her friends and peers move on to college, work and marriage. This adds a heavy sadness to the story which develops as the novel wears on and Rose turns from little girl to adult. Thankfully the story still manages to flow naturally and beautifully and the sorrow of the story is broken up with light heart humour and moments of tenderness.
I often struggle with magic realism, not because I don’t like it, far from it, but the writing has to be such that I can accept and digest the unrealistic things that are happening without becoming distracted from the story at hand. With Bender it is so explicit what is magical and what is real that I found it easier to accept the bizarre moments of the book.
Yet not everyone seems quite as comfortable with the story and after reading other reviews it’s become clear that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has really split opinions and left some readers with a bitter taste in their mouths. Given that I really enjoyed the book it’s hard to understand why others might not have found it so pleasing.
The book certainly didn’t go in the direction I expected it to and there were times when I wished she had followed a different course. Rose’s gift seems to cripple and block many aspects of her life which I did at times find frustrating. The gift surely could have been just that a gift, an opportunity to help people, to bind her family back together. But then Bender seems to be telling her readers that some family divides cannot be healed, and some differences will mark us indefinitely. Ultimately it is how Rose acts upon her gift which create such an interesting story.
Bender uses this extraordinary metaphor to explore all of the complexities of family lives, the coming of age troubles that we all face, and the way our ultimate loss of innocence creates great divides between our younger selves and who we inevitably become.
For the beautiful message at the heart of the book and for Bender’s unwavering honesty I have to praise and respect this book. It wasn’t what I thought it would be but in many ways that allowed it to be better.
Love or hate this book I think The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is well worth the read if you like books that intimately explore human nature, the relationships we form and how a families past can mark a person’s future.