Friday, August 1, 2014

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender [book review]

Each July in our food book club, The Kitchen Reader, we read a novel with a food-themed plot. This year we chose The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. It's about Rose, a girl who one day discovers that she can taste her mother's sadness in the food that she prepares for the family. Then she realises that in any food she can taste the emotions of whoever made it. It's a bit of a shock to her to discover things about her mother and others that were previously hidden. As Rose matures she learns a lot about herself and others.

As it turns out, this is a novel less about food than the title suggests. It is mostly a book that explores family relationships and growing up. Rose's ability to taste emotions makes explicit how confusing young people find it to see adult things for the first time. It is hard work growing up and navigating friendships, romantic feelings, a complicated family. And there are some food-related gems as well.

Rose's ability makes her know more about the people around her than they customarily reveal. I found it intriguing to see how she dealt with half-knowing the secrets of the people she loves. Because of the lens of her ability, she feels generally uneasy with everyone around her. About half way through the book Rose says that she had "stopped waving to passengers in cars by then--I'd grown suspicious of people and all the complications of their interior lives."

Even though the novel centred on Rose's coming of age, there were some wonderful food descriptions, too. Rose finds solace in a French restaurant where the food tastes primarily of joy:
I lavished in a forkful of spinach gratin on the side, at how delighted the chef had clearly been over the balance of spinach and cheese, like she was conducting a meeting of spinach and cheese, like a matchmaker who knew they would shortly fall in love. Sure, there were small distractions and preoccupations in it all, but I could find the food in there, the food was the center, and the person making the food was so connected with the food that I could really, for once enjoy it. The air around me filled with purpose.
This novel was a quick and comfortable read for me, but I still felt there were some insightful moments. Also there were quite a few poignant spots filled with unresolved tension and sadness. The sense of Rose's dis-ease allowed me to think about how well I know another person in a relationship. It led me to a sense of increased tenderness of heart when interacting with others.

Our August book for The Kitchen Reader is a history called Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J Craughwell. Would you like to join us?

[The cake in the picture is actually almond and orange cake. It would be delicious with lemons, though, and I want to add chocolate frosting like Rose's mother.]

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