I had seen this book around a few times while browsing Waterstones and was quite intrigued by it as I thought the name was quite interesting and I liked the cover (my cover is the bright blue one with the girl holding the lemons, not the Dooyoo picture). The fact that it was recommended by Jodi Picoult also caught my eye, as I have enjoyed a lot of her books. I ended up getting a copy at a book fair last weekend and thought it would be a good read for a sunny afternoon out in the garden.
The premise of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is that nine year old Rose Edelstein suddenly finds that when she eats food, she can taste the emotions of the person who made it. She discovers this shocking "skill" when she has a piece of lemon birthday cake made by her mother and suddenly realises her mother is not as happy as Rose always believed she was. I thought this was quite an interesting idea, and the early parts describing Rose's childhood are really well written with some beautiful prose and vivid, lively descriptions.
Rose experiments with this new ability and tries to get some help from her older brother Joseph and his friend George, who are both keen scientists. She struggles with it at school and at home, as eating anything becomes a kind of torture for her. Over the years she has to try and come to terms with it and manage it.
We are introduced to Rose's family and we see some of the cracks in their family life and the distance between them which becomes clearer to Rose as she eats the family food, as each family member seems to live in their own little world, quite isolated from each other in some ways although they are quite close in others. Rose's mother's different relationships and different kind of love for her two children is interesting. We see that it is not only Rose who is struggling with her own issues. Other members of the family have their own problems and unusual powers.
Unfortunately, I didn't feel like the idea was really developed as well as it could have been. The issues within the family were never really raised openly, and all that seemed to happen was that Rose got a bit more awareness of people around her!
I am not completely against supernatural elements in my books by any means - I am a massive fan of Haruki Murakami and I have enjoyed a bit of the supernatural in books such as The Time Traveler's Wife. However, I just could not really get behind all the super powers in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It was not clear to me whether we were supposed to take everything literally or metaphorically. Rose being able to "taste" the emotions could just symbolise her becoming more perceptive as she grows up, and starting to understand other people and life a bit more. I think it would have been okay if it was supposed to be like that, but there was way too much emphasis on all the particular things she could tell from the food. It annoyed me that she kept identifying irrelevant things in the food, like which state all the ingredients had come from, which did suggest that we were supposed to take the skill literally.
The older brother, Joseph, develops an ability which Rose discovers towards the end of the story, and I also found this ability too much to accept if it was supposed to be literal. It seemed like it was supposed to symbolise some of his awkwardness and discomfort in the world and the way that he wanted complete solitude, peace and quiet and seemed to want to leave this world. Some of the other issues with people having powers were just tagged on at the end too in a way which I did not like.
I finished this book feeling a bit disatisfied and disappointed as I just thought the idea had not been executed as well as I had hoped after reading the first few chapters.
It is an okay read and I don't feel I completely wasted my time, but it is not something which I will be reading again and has not become a favourite of mine.
This is a strange book with a strange premise; a girl discovers she can taste in food the feelings of the people involved in making it.
The girl's family is quite dysfunctional, they don't really communicate with each other and they are, none of them, quite happy. The mother is flighty and creative and is always starting new projects and never finishing them, the brother is brilliant but completely disconnected from life and the father seems fairly normal but is completely incapable of connecting with his family. With her "gift" the girl now has to face up to truths about those around her that she would really rather not have to deal with. She also soon realizes that she may not be the only family member with an unusual talent.
The girl's "gift" is treated as an unusual but not inexplicable character trait. How it came to be is never really explained and no one who finds out seems to be particularly interested in an explanation.
The book touches on many dark themes and ponders several more depressing aspects of modern life. It is never truly without hope though and that makes it bearable.
It is written strangely too; it is written in the first person as a flow of consciousness, there are no speech marks and it is often hard to tell who is talking or whether something is happening in the present or the past.
Having just become an avid baker myself, any book with a reference to lemon cake , in the title, had to be worth a read. I was not dissapointed, the subject matter was intriguing, interesting and almost believable. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to find other peoples locked emotions, trapped in their culinary creations. We all know that if we are not enjoying cooking or baking, the result is a substandard product. This book takes that premise to another level whereby the emotions contained in the food is so strong that it cannot be avoided making the product either delectable or disgusting. The first quarter of the book moves at a pace and then widens out as we explore how someone could live with this gift! for a lifetime. Very nicely written and although there is an element of sadness, the lasting impression was one of strength. It is one i would definitely recommend to my friends.
Ever since I read a review on this I've kept an eye out for it in my library and managed to get in yesterday. I read quickly anyway and I wasn't feeling very bright so I read this in just over half a day with an extra half hour for going over parts I had read too quickly. The plaudits on this book were many and varied, but most thought this a wonderful, magical story written with exceptional beauty, I couldn't wait to find out if this was true.
What if you suddenly found strange things happening to you on eating food? An emptiness or hollow feeling hard to describe for anyone, let alone a young child? This happens to Rose Edelstein when she tucks into a slice of her mother's lemon flavored chocolate-topped cake on the occasion of her birthday treat. Rose is about to turn nine years old and by her thoughts she is a very well educated and thoughtful child. What she cannot explain to herself is why she feels a sense of sadness that had never happened to her before. It seemed to be like learning a new skill and one she wasn't sure she'd want to have.
Unfortunately Rose soon realizes she is picking up the emotions of her mother when she made the cake, there isn't any other way she can think of this amazing ability to read thoughts and feelings. Before long she knows her mother is having an affair and her father is so shut off emotionally that he doesn't have a clue about it. She turns to her brother, Joseph, but he has his own problems. For some reason he prefers to stay in his own room and only ventures out for school and to meet his only friend, George who shares his love of science. George is willing to help Rose explore her newly discovered skills and manages to give her some support.
The years go by and the book spreads over Rose's childhood and on into her adulthood. Joseph shows his own strange abilities and it appears that Rose isn't quite as unique in this. It doesn't help her though; she still has to come to terms with her eating problems, as anything that is cooked becomes more acutely felt until she resorts to eating out as much as possible. There's a very real possibility that her family are falling apart and when Joseph starts to go missing and George away at college, who can she turn to?
This book is written in a highly unusual style apart from the story, the author does away with any quotation marks so every sentence has to be read as written. Now I thought the author had probably used this technique to overcome the difficulty of putting thoughts into words and sentences that wouldn't normally make much sense. It also made the narrative somehow very personal, as if each character was speaking directly to the reader or including the reader in the conversation. However it was meant it did work well for me.
The next thing I considered was the feeling that the author was using the special skills of Rose as a metaphor for the lack of understanding in the family. On the surface this is a family with a working mother and father, two intelligent children (sometimes so intelligent I was expecting them to be on the Asperser's spectrum.) I've read several books about the condition and both children had the same isolation, the difficulties reading emotions on the face although Rose was very tactile. As one of the doctor's treats Rose for a hysterical outburst she asks questions that would suggest an eating disorder, but Rose is not afraid of food, just the feelings behind the cook and as the narrative moves on she can even place where the ingredients were made, much like a wine-taster.
I admit I was puzzled and wanted to find a reason that wasn't supernatural. That in itself showed how much the book was affecting me. I like supernatural stories and normally lap them up, so why didn't I want this family to be different? Could I be letting this family and their emotional problems affect my judgment? I wanted some answers and I didn't want the book to end without some rational explanation. Then I had an insight- I was looking at my own family. This leads into-
Certain things in my own childhood can arose strong emotions. I came from a large family where my father worked and my mother struggled to make ends meet. She rarely kissed or touched her children but she showed her love by cooking for them. I had a vision of my late mother with one hand rocking my sister to sleep and the other stirring a large cake mix. Other memories followed in fast succession. Shelling peas with mum, picking fresh lettuce, helping to chop up cabbage (I was barely seven). My brother and my dad being served first. Food was emotion in my mother's life. Was the author feeling something similar?
Rose is a wonderfully drawn character yet we rarely see her in any other actions outside the struggle to eat and her friends soon fall away. In any case, she's not a joiner and her brother Joseph isn't either. Her mother works but has lots of time to have an affair. She does pat Rose's head much like a puppy and she dotes on Joseph.
Rose's father is a vague image that hovers outside the story, only entering at times of trouble. We don't get any images from him as he rarely cooks and when he does there isn't any depth to his feelings to pick up. All we know is he's a lawyer and hasn't any interest outside TV and the family. Even the absent grandmother, who is the only grandparent alive, doesn't visit. This is a very dysfunctional family with a little girl who not only wants love, but also needs it. Her infatuation with George is another sign of a young girl growing up before her time.
This is a character-driven story with a plot that revolves around the family and it's strange abilities. Whichever way you read it, as a metaphor or a supernatural ability, it's a rich read full of the sadness of life when a family stops communicating in the ordinary ways. I cared a lot about the characters and the fact that I saw elements of my own family in the book shows how much it had made me think. The author has set all the normal rules of writing aside and the result is a book brim full of meaning. A heart-rending, rewarding read that would keep you wanting more. I loved it.
My copy is a library one. This can be bought at various places and at reasonable prices of around about £3.50 new. It has 324 pages and is split into short, easy to read chapters.
Thanks for reading my review.
The quirky title of this novel first caught my eye. How can food feel emotions?
Actually, it is Rose who discovers that when she is eating she can taste the feelings of the person who cooked or prepared the food. I was a bit worried that this initial gimmick of the book from which the title is taken would become annoying, but really this is another very well-written and readable novel about growing up in a dysfunctional family. Rose is about to turn 9 at the beginning, and comes home to find her mother making her birthday cake. She can't resist tasting the cake, and at first it is delicious:
"Warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar. But then she has the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother."
This unpleasantness starts to develop in all her food - she is picking up her mother's guilt, and a while later she learns of the reasons for it. Rose starts living on snack foods and doing everything she can to avoid home cooked food - the feelings of a far away factory worker are easier to deal with than those of family. I really liked the irony of this, but was sad for her that she was often living on vending machine junk food. It made me think about how people use food to relate to each other, or not, as the case may be.
The story, set in California, takes place over more than ten years, as Rose grows up. The family is further fractured by the strange behaviour of Rose's big brother Joseph, who becomes increasingly withdrawn and introverted, wanting to be alone so badly that he moves out. His best friend George becomes a good friend to Rose as well, but her problems with food and feelings threaten to overwhelm her.
As well as the conceit of Rose's inconvenient ability to taste emotions, there are other points in the storyline where the reader is required to suspend disbelief. However, what sounds like a gimmick in the title and initial description of the novel becomes a powerful story of difficult family relationships, of tensions and secrets and the damage they cause. There are a lot of negative emotions swirling around this story and it is not the most cheerful of reads. Ultimately, I found the writing and characterisation compelling, and the resolution simultaneously sad yet hopeful, as it at least points to the prospect of Rose finally being ready, in her early twenties, to move on to another stage in her life.
I quite like novels about growing up and about thoughts and feelings, rather than fast paced action stories, and I enjoyed this one.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Published by Windmill Books February 2011 in trade paperback
Now in mass market paperback (Amazon £3.84) and for Kindle (£3.59) 07.11.11