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Cook: 'Lemon Cake' blends realism, imagination
‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’
Written by: Aimee Bender
Price: $25.95 (hardcover)
Rating: Four out of five bookmarks

An unusual “superpower” is as the center of Aimee Bender’s “Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” in which 9-year-old Rose discovers she can “taste” the true emotions of people through the food that they cook.

It starts with the eating of a practice birthday cake Rose’s mother has baked, and to Rose’s dismay, she finds that her normally bright-eyed, cheerful, easy-going mother is silently suffering severe depression and misery.

Soon Rose cannot bear eating her mother’s cooked dinners, packed school lunches or homemade desserts, since the sadness she tastes has a powerful effect on her.

Yet through this bizarre special ability, she learns things about her mother, her introverted brother Joseph and her standoffish father that she never would have guessed, and she gradually discovers how her hidden talent can open new possibilities for her.

The reader follows Rose from her childhood through her early 20s, but this is a different kind of coming-of-age story than the usual fare. While a good part of the novel is about how Rose’s special ability shapes her view of the world, it is more about her evolving relationships with the people around her.

This “magical” ability actually takes a back seat to the realistic struggles of Rose dealing with her mother’s secrets, trying to develop a stronger bond with her enigmatic father (who has a potent fear of hospitals, so was standing outside on the street for both her and her brother’s births), and discovering the true reason as to why her brother keeps disappearing, sometimes for weeks on end.

There is a nice balance between the fantastical elements of the story and the realistic ones, without any scene becoming too exaggerated or unbelievable. Bender makes the emotion-tasting concept seem plausible, and Rose acts like any normal person would to such a gift, rather than going the comic book route in which she must now start saving peoples’ lives with her power.

While Rose has no control over it, she does figure out how to use her ability to her advantage, and how to avoid the negative aspects of it. But then she just goes forward as she needs to; she doesn’t use the excuse of being different to disrupt having a normal life.
Even when she “tastes” a dark secret that her mother has been hiding, Rose doesn’t expose or blackmail her; she tries to deal with it as a normal daughter would.

The writing of “Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” is crisp and light, adding moments of humor into what could have been a depressing tale.

All of the characters are strong and memorable, even the minor ones, who display interesting quirks and personalities even if they are only present for a few pages. The whole story is excellently concocted, and much like its titular pastry, has various layers to the characters that are more fascinating than the last.

While there are some moments that come from out of nowhere (in particular, another character reveals a special talent that left me a bit mystified), overall, the novel has a refreshing, unique flavor that is sure to delight many readers.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.