In Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, food emits the feelings of the person who made it to 9-year-old Rose Edelstein. Distraught when she realizes that her mother is unhappy by tasting the emotion in a lemon birthday cake with chocolate frosting, Rose's happy-go-lucky nature begins to dissolve as she starts to question what's going on around her. Food, for Rose, lays bare the dark secrets of everyone she knows years before she should know them.
It's a strange family. Besides Rose, there's her oddball mother, who tries to follow various passions, her loving but distant father, and her unusual brother, Joseph. Joseph is older by a few years, and to Rose he's a genius who somehow can't get into the handful of colleges he applies to. Secretive and always irritated, he spurs the novel's tension with his disappearance shortly after he moves out.
Bender tracks Rose through those years when food tells her particularly startling things -- her mother's affair, her brother's strange disappearance -- ultimately until she's in her early twenties and trying to find a way to use her "gift" for good. It's been a barrier between Rose and a normal life, as she forgoes college and other things in order to save herself trouble, but she ultimately learns to accept both her taste buds and her brother's situation. His "gift" is one that divides the family and can't be hidden, as Rose's can. If the symbolism seems heavy handed, it can be at times, though Bender balances it with the mystery that each "gift" produces.
Food is a terrific character in its own right. Its personification is sometimes twee and at other times seems to mock food criticism and obnoxious food blogs, but its main role is the conduit for change and self-discovery as Rose grows up. There's nothing gimmicky about this, just a novel way of getting to the heart of family issues. As strange as Rose's abilities are, Joseph's are even stranger, but the family is unwilling or unable to talk about them. The one person who will listen, Joseph's friend George, is Rose's crush and the only character who provides some balance to the family's troubles. As a food writer reading this book, I wanted Rose to embrace her strange ability and launch a new type of food writing, one that explores the passion in restaurant's kitchens and whether they use locally sourced ingredients like they promise.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is engaging and Bender creates a world that's easy for readers to inhabit. I've always been drawn to magical realism, and this book is no exception.