“his eyes would slide over and attach to the words, as if they could not do anything but roam and float in the air until words and numbers anchored them back to our world”
This exceptional piece of imagination renders the Edelstein family in Californian suburbia, apparently entirely typical. Until Rose bites into her ninth birthday cake a day early, and tastes the emotions of its creator – the despair of her mother. Food becomes dangerous as Rose suffers enforced empathy through her talented palate. She discovers her mother’s secret, struggles with her father’s detachment and puzzles over her brother’s emotional and occasionally physical absence.
One line on the blurb encapsulates the novel perfectly: “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the heartbreak of loving those whom you know too much about.” (although the grammar nerd in me is having issues with that preposizione abbandonata there at the end!)
The tale itself progresses easily enough, with the bulk of the action when Rose is between the ages of nine and twelve – young enough to be overwhelmed, old enough to be devious. Her family is not unusual; her older brother is the pride of both her parents, who are utterly convinced of his precociousness, while Rose potters along in the background of their awareness. The father is emotionally rather absent and Rose describes this nicely through the suggestion that he has a list of father-daughter activities and is happy to carry these out, but is unaware of how to be a good father in any other aspect of life.
The mother whose despair is so cruelly present in Rose’s birthday cake is described as by an adult looking back – we sense Rose’s adoration of her mother, particularly her admiration of the maternal culinary skills, but she is fairly cynical regarding her mother’s hobbies and pastimes, expecting the enthusiasm for carpentry to wane within a few months, the way every other enthusiasm has done.
Bender maintains the magical realism impeccably throughout, examining Rose’s life at school, condemned to buying prepackaged junk food and being jealous of other families’ happiness she can taste through shared sandwiches in the playground. Neither Rose’s family nor friends can understand her affliction, so Rose is forced into silence apart from near the few people in whom she can confide.
I was very impressed by this – it is not a heavy book, but combines a startlingly clever idea and beautiful writing very elegantly. Rather like a good cake. I can’t fault the book, but I don’t feel that it deserves 10/10 – it failed to grab me the way The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did. Perhaps my slight apathy is because while I was interested in what happened to Rose and her family, I didn’t identify with any of them.
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