Book Review: The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

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Title: The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher: Windmill Books (1 September 2011)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Price: Rs. 499 on Amazon
Pages: 336

It is not a hidden fact that I'm a foodie. I'm also a bibliophile so when these two meet, I'm ecstatic! After the sensuous 'Chocolat' and the romantically delectable 'Like Water For Chocolate', when someone recommended this book to me, I was more than happy to buy and read it. The blurb was way too interesting and the fact that it had a nine year old as the protagonist was endearing. I started reading this book in early December, but work kept me insanely busy. Towards the end of the month, I continued reading it and this was the first book I finished in 2019.

When Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake on the eve of her ninth birthday, she realizes that she can taste her mothers emotions in it. Though confusing at first, Rose slowly but grudgingly begins to accept this "gift" of hers. Food instantly becomes perilous to her as meal after meal new things are revealed about her mother. Secrets her mother doesn't want anyone to know. It is not only the food cooked by her mother, Rose can even read the emotions of people who cook any meal. Not only the emotions, she can even taste every ingredient in the dish and trace it back to its source. While she can say that a bowl of onion soup was made by a passionate chef who loves her job, she can also trace the onions back to a farm in the country side where delicate hands have picked it up. Every ingredient used in a dish tells her a story and Rose soon begins to prefer non home cooked meals so that she can not be privy to her mother's emotions.

Rose's father is a successful lawyer and a good man. Rose's elder brother Joseph is a distant kid who prefers to be left alone. Rose's mother is a brilliant cook and also very ambitious and creative. When she join a woodwork class, her moods and emotions change reflecting in her food. While Rose forces herself to eat meals at home and learns of her mother's new found happiness, Joseph keeps disappearing every now and then. Suddenly, thanks to Rose's taste buds the whole family seems so distant and yet together. Every member of the family seems to be holding a secret. Will this family survive?

The answer is yes. It does survive in its own weird way. While the book has a promising story, the first and most important thing that bothered me the most in this book was the lack of dialogues. Yes, people do talk to each other in the book but it is not written in a conversational format. You might find a dialogue in the middle of a paragraph suddenly. The author's imagination is on an over-drive here as she tries to write about magical realism or that's what I'm guessing it is. Having these characters with special gifts might have worked better in the X-Men franchise, but they fall flat as unrealistic in this book. While the title suggests that the story will all be about food, unfortunately it is not. It does start with the lemon-chocolate cake, yes, and is followed up by pies and roast beef, but neither the food not the emotion that comes out of it is celebrated. While Rose silently suffers with this unwanted gift of hers, she also learns about her mother's affair when she's twelve. How? Yeah, through a meal cooked by her mother.

This whole angle was unnecessary in my honest opinion. Rose's father is such a sweet, family oriented man. Yes, he maintains his distance from his kids, but there is no reason that he's a bad man. Why is Rose's mother so unhappy I didn't understand. While she loved cooking and had all the freedom to pursue any hobby in the world, why did she feel like she was in shackles all the time? She reminded me of April from 'Revolutionary Road', an unhappy woman in a seemingly happy family. Even when Rose confronts her mother and her lover separately, they never really speak about it later. The affair goes on even when Rose turns twenty two, that's a good ten years! How is Rose's mother okay with doing this to her husband? Why doesn't Rose feel the need to tell her father about this? How can Rose and her mother continue to have a normal relationship in-spite of all this? Amidst all this, food, the thing that is supposed to hold all of this together, is long forgotten.

*****Spoiler Alert*****

The most ludicrous part of this book is Joseph and his so called gift. This gift of his is not revealed until almost his last disappearance towards the end of the book. What was the author thinking when she came up with it? While people would still buy the concept of Rose's grandfather smelling emotions in people and Rose tasting emotions in food, did Joseph need to have the ability to transform himself into a piece of furniture? I am all for fantasy and magic, yes, but this seems a bit too far-fetched. Turns out every time Joseph disappeared, he had transformed into a piece of furniture at home. When he transforms back into himself days or weeks later, he's usually starved and dehydrated for obvious reasons. The family never questions his disappearance and never bothers to look into why he suddenly re-appears all emaciated and frail. They just consider this a part of his growing up. Also, why does Rose's father have an aversion to hospitals? Why was there no back story here?

The ending of the book is abrupt and hurried. At first I did not understand the last few chapters and the truth about Joseph. I thought he was time traveling or something. I went back again to read it twice to make sense of it. I couldn't believe what I had read until I came back to Goodreads and read some of the reviews here only to realize that I had after all interpreted it correctly. The book only has a handful of characters, but George and Rose's grandma were wasted. You want to feel for them, but you just can't. They just came and went as they like without adding or taking away anything from the story. For a book that claims to be delicious and highly emotional, it left a bad taste on my palate.


Verdict: The premise is highly exciting, no doubt, but it fails miserably in its execution. If you are looking to read this for a gastronomical or emotional experience, be prepared to be disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

22 comments:

  1. seems like an interesting book!

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  2. Ooh the premise sounded so promising! I skipped the spoiler alert at the end, simply because if I ever decide to pick up this book, I'd wait to see how it plays out.

    Of course, based on your review, this becomes way down on the list at the moment.

    That said, a very fascinating idea for a book. I seem to remember something along similar lines in a movie some time? Not food and emotions, but something else. Argh I cannot remember now. Maybe it will come back to me.

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    1. Haha we'll have quite a discussion if you read this :)

      A movie? If it comes to you, let me know. I'd like to watch that one.

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  3. When I began reading I so wanted to pick this up. I skipped the spoiler. I think I will still go ahead and buy. 🤭

    Loved the detailed review

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    1. Do read it and let me know what you think :)

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  4. Awwww damn! You didnt like this one at all! See if you can read her short story collections - The Color Master - her stories are so un believable yet rich layerings of imagery, folk tales and such stuff!

    the bizareness and weirdness in her writings is what appeals to me; and she can be quite a bit of that. :-)

    But I do agree with your questions on Joseph's gift - that one was a little weird for me too and maybe a tad bit unnecessary.I think I would have loved to read about grandpa's sense of smelling emotions.

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    1. I love quirky stuff too, but this one was way out of league :P

      I might read the Color Master, I remember a glowing review on your blog :)

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  5. The book does seem to be written with a wonderful premise that could have turned out well. But sadly did not. After reading your review, I doubt if I would pick this one up.

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    1. Yeah Rachna. I had so many expectations from this one, it didn't live up to it at all.

      Had the author got it right, this story would have been a delight.

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  6. I agree, the concept is fascinating. Which is why this was pretty high on my TBR wishlist. But I am not so sure now..:/

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    1. The only thing fascinating about it is the concept, everything else falls flat for it. Do stay away from it is what I'd say.

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  7. Interesting story, Soumya.
    Cooking is a delicate affair. Cooks do put in their emotions in the food. Imagine if everyone had such power like Rose!
    Joseph transforming into furniture is no doubt far-fetched.

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    1. Interesting yes, if only it was executed well. Sigh.

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  8. I have been seeing this book all over the social media. The concept of the book is so fascinating but sad that it didnt work out for you. I hate hurried and abrupt endings. You feel so cheated when you see such an ending to a book. I think I will let it pass.

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    1. Tell me about it! I was so excited about the concept that it broke my heart when the book turned out to be such a dud :(

      Good choice!

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  9. I tried to read the book. I really tried. 3 times. Gave up! Very 'heavy' reading and extremely depressing book. Even the food described sounded boring! Your honest and detailed review is bang on, Soumya!

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    1. Exactly what I felt too, the lack of dialogues made the writing very heavy and tedious. No wonder you could not finish it!

      Thank you, Mayuri!

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  10. Ah. I'd added this to my TBR last week. Now I'm having second thoughts.

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  11. The premise sounds really good and you would hope someone would do it justice. This one is probably for the forget about it basket {which suits me fine given my huge TBR list!}

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    1. It is a beautiful premise, ruined by crazy nonsensical imagination.

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