The story of a young girl who can taste guilt in roast beef and sadness in lemon cake.
“She’s like a magic food psychic,” her brother’s best friend diagnoses in Aimee Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, after an experiment at a bakery where Rose can identify which baker hates his job (chocolate chip) and which one was running late that day (oatmeal raisin).
Her empathic taste buds erupted right before her ninth birthday, when she bit into a piece of her birthday cake. In addition to lemon cake and chocolate frosting, “all sunshine and cocoa,” “it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother...”
Horrified at both the knowledge that her impulsive, good-with-her-hands mother is miserable and at having the knowledge forced on her in such a personal, inescapable way, Rose learns to loathe mealtimes. “The whole thing was like reading her diary against my will,” she recalls years later.
Even her sack lunches become emotional land mines. Rose “spent lunchtime at the porcelain base of the drinking fountain, which was half stopped up with pink gum, taking sip after sip of the warm metallic water that pushed through old pipes from plumbing built in the twenties, pouring rust and fluoride into my mouth, trying to erase my peanut-butter sandwich.”
Magic realism is kind of like cilantro; plenty of people love the Latin flavor. But for some, even a hint of it is like eating soap. My mom, for instance, picked up “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” – and put it right back down.