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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake    by Aimee Bender order for
Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

First the title (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) intrigues, then the story's premise, that a young woman can taste other people's true feelings through the food that they've prepared - gift or curse?

It certainly feels like the latter to young Rose Edelstein, who grows up in a rather strange family. Her lawyer father is distant, but seems ordinary aside from his absolute refusal to ever enter a hospital, even for the births of his children. Her mother, very loving on the surface, is revealed to Rose as empty underneath through a taste of chocolate frosted lemon cake on the child's ninth birthday. In each bite Rose nibbles, she samples 'absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows.' Her genius brother Joseph has a talent for disappearing. And Grandma (who never visits) is the strangest of all.

Rose tries to connect to her father, a decent man, but it's difficult. When her mom embarks on a new career in carpentry - and eventually has an affair with her mentor, Larry - Rose tastes that too. As Rose struggles with her ability, always trying to avoid her mother's cooking and any other foods that would tell her more than she wants to know - she only shares her talent with two people, Joseph and his best friend George. The latter treats it as a scientific project, working with Rose to test what she can do. He calls her 'a magic food psychic' and she worships him.

The family, only loosely held together in the first place, disintegrates further when Joseph goes to college and gradually fades from their lives, despite all that his mother does to hold him. Through all this, Rose struggles to find her own life calling and a way to live with her odd talent - and finally succeeds. She makes a conscious choice to stay in the world.

Few have the gift of empathy to the degree Rose has, but those who do have it also find it as much burden as blessing. In her allegorical novel, Aimee Bender explores growing up with extreme sensitivity; learning to come to terms with it; and dealing with family dysfunction and tragedy. As The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake forewarns, the story is filled with sorrow but also intriguing.

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