Every so often, one book seems to make its way through several of the blogs I read. One of these books, a few months ago, was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Since I’d already read the jacket description in Green Apple Booksellers in San Francisco when I was visiting over New Year’s and been intrigued, I decided to request it at the library.
Six months later, I finally read it. When I joined the hold list, I was around #130 in line. Good thing I wasn’t in any particular hurry!
It was a good book and I’m not sorry I let it sit in my hold list long enough to get all the way though the LONG line…but I’m also not sorry I didn’t buy it six months ago, despite my great fondness for Green Apple.
The book is about Rosie, who, whenever she eats, can taste the emotions of the people who cooked the food. She discovers this talent/curse when she eats the lemon cake her mother made for her ninth birthday, and realizes that her happy-seeming mother is…well, depressed is simplifying–empty, unfulfilled, desperately seeking something else in her life and probably wanting someone else to provide it.
The book follows Rosie into adulthood, as she grapples with eating and with the hidden tensions in her family–revealed only in their food.
I love the premise–I was so intrigued by it at Green Apple. I do feel it lived up to the promise of that premise, at least in how that part of the book was handled. Rosie develops a complex palette for food–she can tell where the ingredients came from, has insights about every stage of the process, sees into the hidden emotions of the people who touched it all along the way, often seeing the things that they don’t know themselves. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t cook her own food–where’s the harm in feeling your own emotions?–but when she does finally try that, it reveals hidden feelings in herself that are even more terrifying than other people’s.
I did have some problems with parts of the book, though. People seem to only ever transmit negative emotions into food. Maybe I’m just a hopeless idealist, but I refuse to believe that the vast majority of people are leading desperately unhappy lives, secretly or otherwise. In all the food she eats throughout the book, I can think of only one example where the people making the food seem to be truly happy. Rosie also finds one restaurant where she loves the food, but it’s not so much that the cook is happy as that she really loves food, and puts that into the dishes.
So I had trouble with that part. I also don’t see why it was necessary. Being overwhelmed by other people’s emotions every time you eat is compelling enough–being hit by other people’s positive emotions would be difficult too, and maybe even more interesting.
The second part I bumped into some problems with was Rosie’s brother, Joseph. He possesses his own strange talents which, if you take it all at face-value, make tasting emotion in food seem comparatively tame. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I’ll mention that he disappears most of the way through the book. I won’t spoil how, except to say that it’s part of that strange talent.
This, odd though it may sound, is where I found the book implausible. Not the way Joseph disappears–I was willing to accept that as the universe of the book–but the way other people react. I’ve read other books about family members who disappear, probably kidnapped or run away, and the reaction here just didn’t feel right. He was twenty or so when it happened, but there still should have been quite a lot of police calls, a lot of trying to hunt down anyone he had talked to or knew who might have an insight, a lot more searching. Deciding to live in a fantasy where he’s off skiing the Alps and might come back any time just didn’t ring true to me, even for these rather odd characters.
I am probably over-exaggerating the issues of the book. Do you ever find it’s sometimes easier to explain the parts that didn’t work than the parts that did? Well, let me wind up by saying I did enjoy the book, and if you’re intrigued by the premise it’s worth a try. You might want to lay in a Terry Pratchett book or two, though, in case you find yourself needing a laugh by the end.
Author’s site: http://www.flammableskirt.com/ (I don’t know what it means either…)