The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, or Why Synesthesia Sucks

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Imagine while you are eating dinner tonight that every time you take a bite you can feel the emotions of the person who cooked it.  This is the very unusual synesthesia that afflicts Rose, the main character of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.  OK, it's not exactly synesthesia, which refers to the neaurological condition where sensory input gets confused in the brain.  Sounds suddenly have color, or tastes.  Certain words are associated with smells...But Rose's ability to taste the emotions of the people who made her food was just one special ability in her family's DNA. 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender,  begins when Rose is a child.  She comes home one day to a freshly-made chocolate lemon cake.  When she takes a bite, she can suddenly feel how desperately lonely and unhappy her mother is.  After an initial panic, she learns to eat as much food prepared by faceless factories-while she can tell where the ingredients came from and which factory manufactured it, she is not inundated with the feelings of strangers.  But she can't avoid family dinners, and when her mother's food suddenly starts tasting of guilt, Rose knows that she is having an affair.  At the same time, her brother Joe, who never really felt a part of the world, starts to disappear.  Over the course of years, he is gone more frequently and for longer periods.  Through it all, Rose deals with her relationship with her mother, her father, her friends, and George, her first crush and brother's best friend.

This book may be the most unique coming of age story that I have ever read.  Rose's character is full of all the angst and uncertainty of any adolescent-I mean, aren't we already swimming in a storm of emotions as teens?  Bender's writing is fluid and poetic, though she does have that annoying lack of quotation marks going against her. She manages to blend a rather surreal set of family quirks and strange events into a very realistic seeming story about a family who loves each other, but just can't seem to connect. 


  1. The initial premise sounds like "Like Water for Chocolate". From your review, the family dynamic reminds me of "Bee Season". Have you read that? I did recently and enjoyed it.

  2. It sounds really interesting! I have wanted to read this for a little while now purely because of the title, but now I know a little more what it's about, I definitely want to read it.

  3. I really liked this book, although I know many people who didn't. I saw a lot of comments to the effect of "why didn't she use her ability to taste emotions to help people?" My thought was, what a goody-two-shoes heroine she would have been :-) and as a teenager, I think Bender's approach was much more on the mark.

  4. @Mary-I haven't read Bee Season, but I'll check it out

    @Amy-I agree, it would have been unrealistic for a teen with her family dynamic to have gone all Mother Theresa. I think that her reaction when she had that friend that wanted to use her as an emotional barometer was much more realistic.


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