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(#61) Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

When Rose Edelstein takes a bite of her mother’s lemon-chocolate cake and can taste her mother’s emotions, she realizes that she has some sort of gift.  At nine, it’s difficult for her to articulate, and it isn’t long before Rose realizes that she’s privy to all sorts of secrets that she wish she weren’t: her mother’s wandering attention, her father’s distance from the family, her brother’s tendency to disappear.  As she grows up, Rose learns to live with her strange ability and struggles to reconcile the fact that being able to taste emotions doesn’t mean that she understands every single secret.

Aimee Bender’s novel has a lot of potential, but unfortunately the execution doesn’t quite match what was promised.  Strong writing and an interesting premise can’t save this novel from meandering from event to event before eventually fizzling out.  Surrealist in tone, this is not a novel for every reader.  Bender’s light, almost callous tone will turn some readers off, while others will struggle with the increasingly absurdist nature of the story.

What works best in Bender’s novel are the descriptions of the foods that Rose eats as she discovers her ability to taste emotions.  She can trace a food’s history through its texture and ingredients: she can tell if the person who picked the vegetables was angry or kind and can tell if the cook was sad, rushed, or madly in love.  As she explores the nuances in the foods she eats, she also uncovers secrets about the people around her.  This is most fully explored in the case of her mother, whose loneliness and unhappiness actually sends Rose into convulsions at one point.

The problem is that Bender’s novel seems to lose focus early on.  Instead of focusing on Rose’s ability as she grows older, Bender explores the increasingly odd disappearances of Rose’s older brother.  She also hints at Rose’s mother’s affair, but this is never fully examined.  It is here that the novel seems to lose all of its focus and all of its momentum.  Instead of allowing her characters to propel the plot forward, Bender seems content to allow them to stay still, which makes the story stagnate.

Problems with plotting and pacing aside, there’s no denying that Bender is a very good writer.  Those who want to revel in the language will find plenty of opportunities to do so.  Those who cannot swallow a book with a predominantly surrealist plot, though, should probably look elsewhere.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Doubleday: 2009.  Library copy.


62 thoughts on “(#61) Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

  1. When I saw this pop up on Freshly Pressed I was so excited; I’ve been meaning to read this book and this review actually makes me more excited for it (loving surrealism like I do)! Thanks for the review!! 🙂

    1. I’d been meaning to read it for a long time, too. The fact that you like surrealism should help w/r/t this book. Happy reading!

    1. It might end up being a great read for you. I read a lot of positive reviews–I think NPR raved about it, for one–but it just didn’t quite work for me.

  2. I have been eyeing that book in the library…partially because lemon cake is my favorite! Thank you for your honest review.

    1. Haha, I love lemon cake, too. Every time I look at the cover I have a craving for lemon cake with chocolate frosting. Like…right now.

  3. I totally agree with your review. I was so excited to read this book with a concept that seemed to hold so much potential, but in the end I felt a little let down by it.
    I’ll always be a sucker for a book with a cake on the cover though. : )

    1. There were definitely aspects to it that I enjoyed, like I said. I just finished the book wanting more, feeling like something was missing. Perhaps that was Bender’s intent?

  4. I loved this book (though I am one of those readers who greatly enjoy surrealism). The plot does wander, but I think because of Rose’s sudden ability to taste emotions, it has to focus on the people around her, on the people she is ‘tasting’ and getting to know through their food. It was a sad book to me, but there was something in it–how we all cope with the mundane, ordinary life through actions like disappearing, altering our diet, avoiding–that resonated with me.

    1. Thanks for this insightful comment. You brought up some really good points–things I hadn’t thought about.

  5. Great review. You might also like the book the edible woman. Im not sure of the author off the top of my head, but its a great read. Just google it 🙂

    Congrats on being FP

    1. Thanks!

      You’re talking about Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, right? I haven’t read it, but I’m a huge Atwood fan, and the book looks really, really interesting. It’s been moved to the top of my TBR pile.

  6. I liked the book, and you are right-the language was great. There were several places when I paused and thought that I wished I had written what I just read. However, the whole “chair” situation at the end left me confused. I hated that part.

    1. Yes, the writing was beautiful. I was often jealous of Bender’s ability. The chair thing was totally bonkers.

  7. I read this book when if first came out, excited about its possibilities. But I was disappointed too. I agree with you. “Like Water for Chocolate” was a much better written and poignant story – without the out-of-word addons.

  8. I really loved the premise of this book and enjoyed reading it.

    I craved Lemon Cake with Chocolate Frosting for weeks after finishing this text! haha

    Thank you for the interesting article!

  9. I read this book, and had the same notions. It took great focus on my part to actually finish it. Try “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories”. Bender has a great imagination, and an interesting way about her words. Maybe she is just better in brevity!

    1. I’ve read a couple of reviews that have had the same thought about Bender being at her best w/r/t short stories. I’d like to read more of her work–she’s definitely a good writer–and short stories might be the way to go. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Your review is spot on. Beautiful writing, but I was detached until the last ten pages. Read those and then cried for half an hour. And then gave the book 5 stars.

    You have a wonderful blog!

    1. Isn’t it funny how an emotional reaction can change our perceptions of a book? This happens to me a lot and it’s something that I struggle with as I try to become a better reader and a better writer.

      Thanks for the comment!

  11. I read this book last year and I just have to say thank you for your honest review. I too felt it lacked something. It started out so strong and you’re left wondering a lot of things about her brother. And Rose’s own gift becomes just something to cope with in the end versus the colorful and playful nature of it in the beginning. I guess I was particularly sad with this book. And all the reviews that came out at its publishing said it was the must read of 2010. Wouldn’t be my pick, it was so-so for me. Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought it could’ve lived up more to the hype.

    1. I agree–the first half of the book felt so much stronger than the second half. It’s almost as though the story would have worked better as a short story (or even a novella).

      You’re onto something with the whole “playful nature” thing. It definitely lost that feeling as Rose got older.

      Thanks for the comment!

  12. that actually looks like a fascinating read. your blog is fantastic, and thank you for the review! i just stumbled across it on ‘freshly pressed’ and i’m really glad i did!


  13. I’ve always envied those who can review books objectively without being too wrapped up in the happy afterwards glow of having finished it, the plot and characters swimming in their head. Maybe I should read more objectively and actively seek to find weaknesses and strengths in the process of reading rather than try to recall them after.

    1. Reading critically (and objectively) is something that is relatively new to me. As I’ve started to review books that I read, I find myself paying closer attention to things like the character’s voice, the diction/syntax, stylistic choices. I find that taking notes, either as I’m reading or right after I finish a book, helps me when it comes time to write the review (which is sometimes a week or two later).

  14. What a great review–you are both insightful and fair. What I hope is that Aimee Bender keeps writing, and that you do too!

  15. Thanks for this. I was curious about the book when I first heard about it, but I had completely forgotten it until now. I’m wondering if it’s even worth reading now that I have seen your opinion. Hmm…

    1. I think if you thought it sounded interesting, it still might be worth checking out. The great thing about an opinion is that it isn’t shared by everyone. A lot of people really liked this book. You might be one of them!

  16. Oh man! I’m so excited to see this book reviewed. I think it has my favorite book title, and one of the best plot ideas I’ve ever heard. But I agree with you completely….it loses focus really early on, and its incredibly vague and surreal. I found it rather disappointing, actually, particularly the ending – it was final, but vague, like it was an attempt to hint a sequel that would never really happen.

  17. A book appeals differently to readers – some may like it, some just can’t seem to relate to it. Maybe that’s why other reviewers find this book really good so much so that it’s all hyped up. But your review has “warned” me not to expect too much. But will still read this anyway. ^_^

  18. I read this book a few weeks ago on vacation, and I definitely agree with your review. I was excited to give it a go, because I remembered it getting a fair amount of press when it first came out, but to me, the book just wasn’t all there. I actually loved the surrealist/magical realism bent of the book, but so much of the plot seemed unexplored. I told my husband that it felt more like a short story that had been spun into a full length novel, but without any of the expansion of plot or character. To me, it would have been more successful either as a short story OR as a novel– but with about 200 more pages!

    Enjoyed reading your review!

    1. Agreed about the feeling of a short story stretched thin. Bender’s previous work has been in short stories, and I can’t help but feel like that’s where she should stay.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  19. Thanks so much for the review- I’ve been going ’round and
    ’round trying to decide whether to buy this book, and your review was really helpful! Great post, I’m going to subscribe so I can keep up with your great reviews. Congrats on FP!

  20. I just finished the book yesterday, I saw it in my book store a few days ago in a sale and it sounded so interesting I bought it. Your review sums up my feeling on it! It started out with so much promise, and I was very engaged with the story. The more I read, the less I felt was happening, and then the whole thing with her brother… it initially took me a minute to realise what had happened. I thought I knew what had occurred, but that was such a ridiculous notion that it could not possibly be what had happened. But it had. I felt Rose’s ability wasn’t explored enough, not enough happened with it, except until the very end. Then everything seemed to happen, and I wanted to know more! Then the book ended. Bender is definitely an amazing writer with quite an imagination, I’m just disappointed that this book wasn’t pulled off as well as it could have been.

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