The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake / 978-0-385-50112-5
Rose Edlestein is a normal, unassuming, un-spectacular girl, the youngest in a family of four - with one competent but distant father, one insomniac and emotionally fragile mother, and one older brother who is the darling of her parents yet becomes increasingly disconnected from the rest of the family. On the eve of her ninth birthday, ordinary Rose discovers that she has an extraordinary gift, and this gift (or is it a curse?) will serve as a catalyst to highlight the minute fractures within her seemingly wholesome family.
If a lot of that description put you in the mindset of the superb and meaningful "Bee Season", then you're not alone - much of "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" feels like a more magical and less religious rendition of Eliza Naumann and her increasingly neurotic and dysfunctional family. Yet where "Bee Season" highlighted a search for the divine through various avenues and psychological and philosophical ventures, this novel instead focuses on a search for the self - or, rather, a search to know oneself and, where possible, to *change* oneself. When Rose tastes food - of any kind - she is immediately and intimately aware of the innermost emotional makeup of the cook, and she spends much of the book desperately avoiding as much "human prepared" food as possible, preferring the clean sterility of factory-made food served in unassuming vending machines. More than anything else, she avoids any food prepared by herself, for what could be more overwhelming than a complex and unwelcome bout of soul-searching every time you sit down to dinner?
Although the writing style of this novel is quite lovely, and I enjoyed it immensely, I grant that it will not be for everyone. Besides the strong similarities to "Bee Season", there is also a strong dash of magical realism here, almost akin to a sprinkling of Garcia Márquez or Salman Rushdie. "Lemon Cake" employs a fluid, fast-moving narrative that skips through scene and setting changes and will frequently move lightly and quickly over dialogue and description. All this is accomplished skillfully, however, and heightens the magical realism and the quiet disorientation and despair of Rose as she bears witness to the chaos surrounding her family. And when, in the second half, the magical realism increases, it does so with such subtlety and pacing that the reader is not lost or alienated by the subtle change in tone.
"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" isn't perfect - there are occasional passages, particularly near the end, where the narrative is just a little too heavy, or where Rose has become just a tiny bit too much of an author avatar, or where things are wrapping up just a little too tightly. It seems odd for me to say so, but somehow it is more believable for Eliza Naumann to meet God than it is for Rose Edelstein to succeed in redefining herself, and perhaps that is because "Bee Season" ended with uncertainty - Eliza's epiphany was not put to the test of time, as it were. However, despite its small faults, this novel gripped me tightly and kept me up well past midnight, unable to rest until I had reached the conclusion.
The style and story complement each other in much the same way as the tart lemon cake and sweet chocolate icing, and I highly recommend this novel for anyone seeking a refreshing foray into the world of magical realism and messy families.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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