The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I thought, up until the opening of this novel, that my top five books were set in stone. Nothing would enter those five books and kick one of my selections to the “curb” or not, at least, for quite some time. Then along comes Aimee Bender and writes what is simply a beautifully written piece of contemporary fiction that borders on Sci-Fi. Not Sci-Fi as in spaceships and aliens, but Sci-Fi as Philip K Dick once described. An ordinary world, with one small change that alters the course of the central characters life.

The change in this instance is that Rose, a young girl growing up in Los Angeles, can taste peoples emotions and feelings in the food that they prepare and make. She discovers this one day when tasting a lemon chocolate cake that her mother has made. Upon tasting it, under the layers of sweetness, lays a sense of smallness and despair. Rose can taste how her mother feels and thus the book follows Rose through her life as she grows up with this bizarre blessing of power.

It’s not as if the novel depicts Rose as a food tasting superhero, but throughout the novel you get a sense that through this mysterious property that she is holding her family together. Her brother, Joe, is a young genius but is so highly introverted that he borders on weird. Their sibling relationship is at times strained and it isn’t until later in the book that we truly find out why. Their pairing is typical of modern fiction with a slant on Joe being the favourite which leaves Rose constantly asking for reassurance from her parents.

And they aren’t exactly the best parental unit going. We read about the distance between them, her mother who flits from hobby to hobby trying to find her niche in life and her father rarely connects with his family despite his obvious love for them. Aimee Bender has nailed modern family life so well that her smattering of the unusual stands out wonderfully and lives to enhance the social structure of the family unit.

The introduction of Rose’s unique ability actually lends the story some suspense and you begin to hang off of each word with the same fear that the central character has, a fear that with one bite of food the world around her will suddenly change. This talent also brings up genuine questions for cast and reader alike, what would you do if a bite of food released unknown secrets into your mind? And what would you do with that information?

For much of the novel you become lost in Rose’s world, not just because of the plot twists, but because of the writing. The author uses her writing to layer each sentence with a distant melancholy but also with a twisted humour. There are many moments when the situation is awkwardly funny and it ignites the story with life.

One thing to note, please ignore the cover of the novel. Simply out, it makes it feel like Chick Lit or something similar, when in truth it’s something very different. The simple reason that this book has seemingly, out of nowhere, stormed into the handful of books that became my favourites is because of its sheer brilliance. In terms of writing, setting, pacing, plot and moreover the twists near the end which I shan’t spoil, it is a book that is awe inspiring in scope and depth.

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