“The story is about a young girl, Rose Edlestein, who has the ability to taste the emotions of the foods she eats.” (from Wikipedia)
This book was given to me by a friend in undergrad, and that was also the first time I read it. It was impactful then but I think I had not yet had some of the experiences that made it even more impactful on the second read. I’ll probably keep this book for the rest of my life and re-read it often. It, as well as Solutions and Other Problems and Hateship (…), made me feel understood and not alone in a way very few other books ever have. Cried several times while reading.
I love mundane or “quiet” realism (think Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce) for the way that it captures the subdued struggles of the heart. Part of why I love fantasy is the way it lets those struggles be transformed into louder versions of themselves because they can be expressed by breaking the rules of the real world (the other part of why I love fantasy is escapism). The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is magical realism that unites the things I love about realism and fantasy, which is what my favorite kind of magical realism does. Lemon Cake is definitely more realism and less fantasy, though, and has the very character-centric flavor of the quiet realists I mentioned. When I was in undergrad I wrote a thesis about what I call “quiet realism” (that you can read if you want–you can just google “torri raines quiet realism” and it’ll come up) and define it as:
“the type of story whose ending feels subtle and unexpected, in that there is no obvious external resolution—no distinct feeling of an action closing the narrative; instead, a central character experiences a quiet, poignant, internal emotional resonance, like smacking a pair of tweezers against your palm and holding them up to your ear to hear small, metallic hum in the brief two seconds before it vanishes.”
“stories in the genre of quiet realism focus on character through the juxtaposition of inner life and social being, highlighting the difference between the two by acknowledging the unspoken, unheard, and unnameable; and having the core belief that attempting to name certain things destroys them, is too painful, or otherwise fails to represent them fully.”
(excuse me while I geek out about getting to quote myself. Also if you know me irl and want to see what I mean about the tweezers thing lemme know and I’ll show you sometime.)
The “subtle and unexpected” is exactly what I think Aimee Bender was going for and I think she pulls it off spectacularly. All of the fantastical elements of the story are used to draw out and express the unspeakable struggles burrowed in each character’s heart. Bender does a great job with all of the characters, but this book touches me so deeply because of the relationship between Rose and Joseph. Rose so desperately wants a relationship with her brother but seems to subconsciously know that wanting that means wanting him to be someone he isn’t. Her own struggles are eclipsed in her parents’ attention by her brother’s, so her compassion for him is laced with a subtext of jealousy. But above all she just wants him to be okay, whatever that means for him. This book will punch me in the gut every time I read it.
I saw some Goodreads reviews for Lemon Cake that referred to a perceived “unfinished” quality that I think probably comes from these readers just not enjoying the mundane or “quiet” realism genre. It’s okay to not like that genre, but I think it’s pretty silly to assume it’s amateur just because you don’t like it. I think in general people should be more open to the idea that they don’t “get” something or have missed the point before concluding that the thing was executed poorly.
Anyway, it’s one of my all-time favorite books and was in the top 5 for this year. If you prefer things that feel “full circle” you might not enjoy it, but if you like character-focused, moody family dramas that aren’t really very dramatic, give it a try.