The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.

My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.

How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches of twinned red cherries.

On the kitchen counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm- eyed mother were welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of brown- sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.

Rose is only a child, on the cusp of her ninth birthday, when her experience of food changes forever. Her mother’s chocolate-lemon cake smells irresistible, but tastes overwhelmingly of sadness and desperation. Horrified, Rose realises she is tasting the emotions of the baker, and that her mother’s surface cheer hides a heart filled with painful secrets.

With the help of her brother’s friend George, the only one who seems to take her seriously, Rose experiments, probing the limits of her talent. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cookie or a sandwich: the cook leaves an imprint that Rose can’t ignore. Finding refuge in factory-made junk food, Rose discovers that she can also draw out the origins of a single ingredient, tasting her way back to the hands of farmers and factory workers who have handled each element. Later, she is drawn back time and again to her favourite restaurants, clinging to the tastes produced by happy chefs who are dedicated to their art. Above all, she shies away from ever eating a meal she’s prepared for herself, terrified of what she might learn.

The trajectory of the book follows Rose as she fights against and eventually grows into her abilities, spanning her formative years in a series of brief vignettes. Her “gift” is more a curse than a blessing, but her route to self-acceptance despite the pain is a path that will be familiar to anyone who has struggled to come to terms with an acquired disability or chronic illness — and will probably resonate more widely. The contrast between Rose’s journey and that of her brother, who also experiences the world in an unusual way, was one of the most captivating (and ultimately heartbreaking) elements of the story.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is beautifully written and easy to read, weaving magical realism with a contemporary story of love and friendship, personal growth, and family secrets.

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