Food and Feelings: ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

Young adult fiction is great. We can all agree on that, right? I’m going to assume that anyone who hates YA isn’t reading a column called Young Adult Education that’s entirely about YA. So, sure, you love YA, I love YA, we all love YA. But sometimes, on occasion, a lady starts to feel like maybe she should read a few books that are actually intended for an adult audience (in this example, “a lady” is me).This isn’t to say that great YA fiction isn’t just as smart, funny, inventive and philosophical as those fancy-pants books in the “Literature” section of Barnes and Noble—in fact, sometimes it’s more so.  Still, though, sometimes I just feel like reading a book that I didn’t get from the “Teen” section of the library, where the books are right next to a row of computers manned by very loud teenage boys playing games who seem to think I’m the one who’s out of place. Listen, Teenage Boys Playing Computer Games,  I’m just a 26 year old woman trying to read about teenagers falling in love and maybe learning a little about themselves in the process! And also why are all of you actual, sort-of-annoying teenage boys instead of, like, fictional British dudes? Leave me alone!

So  anyway, when I started reading Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (which is totally an adult book, thank you very much), I really felt like I was heeding my call to read something non-YA for once. But guess what? I immediately discovered that the book’s protagonist is a young girl and, while the Genre Gods may have deemed this Adult Fiction, it’s not too much of a stretch to say it’s YA.  Apparently, I just can’t quit YA, even if I try. Since Aimee Bender’s not around to argue, this week’s column is going to be about a not-quite-YA-but-still-pretty-close book.

9-year-old Rose lives with her emotionally closed-off father, her kind-of-eccentric brother Joseph, and her perpetually hobby-switching mother. Rose discovers she has a gift (A curse? A talent? Something unusual, anyway) when she takes a bite of the birthday cake her mother makes her and tastes not sugar, not lemon, not chocolate, but “absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows.” Rose realizes that she can taste her mother’s feelings, like some sort of much less sexy reverse Like Water for Chocolate.

Soon, Rose discovers she can taste the secret, hidden emotions of everyone if she eats the food they make. Her mother’s dinners prove unbearable and restaurants, depending on the chef, are difficult. So she takes to eating factory-made food. Vending machine snacks, processed junk, anything formed by the metal of machines instead of human hands and complicated feelings.

But Rose’s secret isn’t the only one in the family. Rose finds out more than she wants to know about her mother’s life just by eating her cooking. She discovers her brother has his own talents as well, even if he won’t ever let her get close enough to find out the truth. And then there’s her father, whom Rose has to carefully pry information out of while pretending to watch TV.

And then, as is the way of most books, a lot of other stuff happens. I don’t want to ruin any of it for you, because this book really is like a beautiful little gift and the last thing I want to do is spoil the surprise. Rest assured, it’s exciting, heartbreaking, lovely and mysterious. I love a little bit of magical realism, and this book has it (even beyond the whole cake-full-of-emotion thing). Do yourself a favor and check out The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake if you like food, beautiful writing, magical realism or just a good read.

Some Highlights:

-Aimee Bender’s writing is absolutely stunning. For one, there’s plenty of gorgeous food descriptions, but even aside from that, her language is poetic. Take this passage, which just so happened to be on one of the first few pages of the book. After Rose’s mother asks her father a favor:

“He breathed in her hair, the sweet-smelling thickness of it. My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped in his two-footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird-watcher. Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back.”

And that was just on the fifth page, you guys. Whew.

-There is actually a romantic plotline, and yes, I loved every second of it.

-If you like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, be sure to check out Aimee Bender’s other books, which include The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures.

-I’ll admit, one of the reasons I wanted to read this book was the amazing looking lemon cake with chocolate frosting on the cover. However, if you think lemon and chocolate are a weird pairing, you’re not alone: apparently, Aimee Bender didn’t know it was an unusual combo when she wrote the book but has since had several baker friends tell her it’s strange. For the record, I think it sounds great and I wouldn’t kick a lemon cake with chocolate frosting out of bed, if you know what I’m saying (I’m saying I’d eat it).

-If you’re as in love with Aimee Bender as I am, you’ll like this great essay she wrote for O Magazine about the importance of writing rules.

What about you? Have you read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? Would you ever want to be able to taste other people’s emotions in your food? Do you think a lemon and chocolate cake sounds kind of amazing? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

(Image via Anchor Books.)

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