A book with magic: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Magical Realism is probably my favorite literary genre. When done well, it is truly a fun experience for a reader—you only need to suspend your disbelief to a slight degree, and for those who dislike fantasy, it’s a nice compromise. I chose this book for my reading challenge because the summary led me to believe it would be part of this genre, and I also enjoyed the concept of the story. I like something different now and again, and I really thought the author had an interesting kernel of an idea to start with.
The story is written from the perspective of our narrator, eight year old Rose Edelstein. Rose lives with her parents—mom, an intellectual rolling stone, dad–a lawyer, and older brother Joe. They are your typical middle class family, except they aren’t, as we discover at the novel’s beginning. Rose suddenly develops the uncanny ability to taste emotions in food. While eating her mother’s chocolate lemon cake, Rose becomes overwhelmed with intense feelings of sadness and loneliness. She doesn’t understand what is causing this feeling until she begins to taste emotions in every food she eats. She is able to parse through the different ingredients to uncover where that particular ingredient came from—she can taste the tomatoes from Italy and knows that the farmer who picked them was depressed, the guy who picked the parsley in San Diego is a jerk, and the cook who added all the ingredients together was feeling very angry that day. Through her ability, Rose is able to uncover the true feelings of others; despite the masks of happiness and fulfillment she sees reflected around her, Rose’s taste buds reveal the truth. We follow Rose and her family as they age, and uncover that she is not the only one with interesting abilities in her family.
While this truly was a fun idea and the “abilities” of this seemingly normal family are wonderful metaphors for modern family dynamics, I can’t help but feel that it fell a little flat at times. There are so many moments I can point to where it seems that Aimee is trying to really give this novel some real meat but upon analysis, it just doesn’t ever really get that depth. It’s a little too….easy. Not subtle enough, like it’s obvious she’s trying really hard.
One of my main gripes with her story, and granted, it’s petty: the novel contains anachronisms. Or maybe not. Herein is the frustrating part. It’s nearly impossible to place what time period this is happening in. Maybe Aimee wants it that way. But there were things that really disconcerted me as a reader; for example, in one scene, Joseph is on a laptop reading The New York Times online, but in the same scene he only has a landline phone that is broken and Rose needs to walk several blocks to use a payphone. You’re telling me she’s in a time when computers and the internet is in full swing, and it’s almost impossible to find someone who does NOT own a cell phone, but neither of them has a cell phone handy? And when was the last time you actually saw a working payphone? Little details like this sprinkled throughout the novel really distracted me from the storyline. It made me focus more on the disconcerting inability to place myself in time than pay attention to the story. To me that’s just bad editing. Perhaps it’s some sort of literary strategy I just am not smart enough to figure out yet. I’m not sure. Overall, it was a nice little read but it fell short of its potential in this reader’s humble opinion.