The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (a book review)

Warning:  spoilers ahead.  I’ll wave a red flag when we get close, but stay alert.

This book made me very sad.  I don’t know why I’m surprised, it’s right there in the tittle. It’s not that I can’t handle sad—I mean, I’ve never missed an episode ofThis Is Us.  But this book made me feel sad in a disturbing way.  So much so that I’m going to include some spoilers, since I can’t really recommend the book anyway.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is narrated by Rose Edelstein, almost nine y.o. when we meet her, about to discover an amazing ability to sense emotion through food.  When she bites into the chocolate lemon cake her mother has made for her birthday, she can detect the despair and longing her outwardly cheerful mother has been suppressing for God knows how long.

Isn’t that a great premise for a story?  I wish I’d come up with it!  Some reviewers note that this concept originated with Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate.”  So I downloaded that to read next, since it’s a gross oversight on my part that I haven’t read it already.  I also want to mention that the book reminded me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s “The Edible Woman.”  Okay, moving on.

As a writer and fan  of magical realism, I expected the story to be a bit quirky, but every anecdote about Rose’s artful family just made me sad:  her parents’ meet-cute story that blows up in a burst of disappointment and suppressed anger at their wedding; her father’s fear of hospitals, so severe that he could not enter the building when his wife was giving birth, so he set up camp on the sidewalk outside, waiting with binoculars for her to appear at the window hoisting up his newborn; her grandmother’s odd parcels filled with used dishtowels and chipped ashtrays, culminating in the arrival of a worn card table and four folding chairs; and finally her reclusive brother Joseph and his penchant for disappearing.  Where does he go?  We didn’t see him leave!  Well, I’ll get to that.

The story follows Rose from eight years old to adulthood, focusing on her growing aversion to food.  “TMI!” she wants to shout with every bite.  We observe her advancing ability to detect the feelings and desires of farm workers, truckers, grocery shelf stock clerks—in short, every person in the distribution chain until the fruit, vegetable, or slice of meat comes to rest in her mother’s hands, and we see the resulting meal overwhelm poor Rose with emotional complexity she is not ready for.  Imagine at the age of ten, tasting a confusing mixture of joy and guilt, and realizing your mother has taken a lover.  This is Rose’s world, and it’s no wonder she relies primarily on a diet of junk food in which she tastes little more than the blank malaise of factory workers and machinery.

I do think this is a fascinating concept, but I was disappointed because the story moved so very slowly.  Bender tells us something happens, and then she goes back over it again and again in ever more excruciating detail.  This is why I can’t really recommend the book.  But then, on the other hand, the story did make me think , and I like to think.

As many of you know, I am a retired special education teacher. I’ve known dozens of students who have “sensory integration” issues, i.e. who have extreme sensitivity to odors, lights, sounds, even tastes.  I wonder if the author loves someone who has these issues, who due to physiological or psychological reasons, needs and wants to retreat from the world.  I wondered if the book is an attempt to kindle compassion for those so afflicted.  Rose is overwhelmed by tastes; she learns late in the book that her late grandfather was overwhelmed by scent, and Dear Dad confesses he is scared that something overwhelming will happen if he ever dares to venture inside a hospital.  But it is Rose’s brother Joseph who faces the biggest challenges of all.  (Here come the big spoilers!)

The most disturbing part of the book is when Rose discovers that her genius brother is not hiding or escaping out the back door, but has actually developed the ability to turn himself into a piece of furniture.  Or rather he is melding himself into a bed or a table or a chair that already exists. It is a frightening scene when Rose realizes that her brother is not just sitting on the chair, but his legs have already disappeared into the chair, the chair legs are poking out of his jeans and resting in his tennis shoes.  She runs for help, but when she comes back, he is gone.  No, not out the open window, but gone—into the chair. This was horrifying for Rose and upsetting for the reader.  Seriously, the thought disturbed my sleep.

Years ago a student was placed in my class who had been doing well enough in a general ed classroom until he had an accident, a head injury that set back his ability to read and speak.  It was a mysterious event, this accident.  He indicated to authorities that he had slipped and fallen in the school bathroom and hit his head.  No one believed this.  Some kind of gang attack was suspected.  He was content to be moved to my class in another school, another neighborhood.  At this point he spoke only in monosyllables and could read and write very little.  However he was a gifted artist and often used cartoons to communicate.

One day he came in with a small book, “A Ninja’s Handbook.” He showed it to me; chapters included instruction on how to fight, how to climb up sheer walls, how to fly. Eager to motivate him, I asked if there was a chapter he found of particular interest.  Maybe we could read and write about it together.  Immediately he turned to a chapter on “How to be invisible.”  I stared at the page.  Finally I told him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you need this.  I think you need to learn to be visible.  That will be the more challenging task for you.”

I told a friend about this conversation and she could not see the logic in my response.  Back then I couldn’t explain it.  But after reading this book I thought of this boy again nearly two decades later, and I think I was really talking about ego.  On the spiritual path, many of us may aspire to release the ego, to get it out of the way so as to awaken to the Divinity within that seems blocked by selfish desires and fear.  But it’s not wise to attempt to let go of an ego weakened by violence and bullying.  I believe one can only attain enlightenment in this way when one has a healthy ego to release.

In the end Rose realizes that perhaps her brother’s sensitivity was something that could not be contained.  She could choose her food carefully to avoid overexposure, but whatever Joseph may have been dealing with, it overwhelmed him so much that he retreated into the furniture.  She knew then she needed to make peace with her own strange ability.  So she seeks out mentors, she sets goals, she moves forward. Yet it’s not a jaw dropping realization, and the ending feels anti-climactic.

Nonetheless, I will eventually read more of Aimee Bender’s work. It’s no small thing for a book (even one I didn’t much like) to conjure up memories, compassions, theories on enlightenment, and more.  I doubt this was Bender’s intent.  If she’s like me, she just wanted to tell a good story.  Though I think this sad lemon cake tale was flawed, it was definitely thought provoking.



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