The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
From the jacket: “On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites in her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.”
My take: We’re constantly asking people how they’re feeling. “How are you? How’ve you been?” We say it dozens of times a week. And while sometimes we want to know, usually the answer we’re seeking is the equally familiar, “Fine. And you?”
Imagine if every time you rotely inquired about someone’s emotional state, they told you in raw and intimate detail. Everyone, every time. You’d stop asking in short order.
Now imagine you didn’t even have to ask. People just randomly sprung this information on you each and every time you turned around. This is what happens to Rose one afternoon just before she turns nine. Suddenly, with every bite of food, she is privvy to the food handler’s most intimate emotions. Desperately sad? She can tell. Bored with your life? She knows. Furious with the world? Got it.
For an unknown reason, that is now Rose’s unfortunate special gift. She can tell from the smallest nibble of sandwich that her mother feels lost and that her best friend’s mother is full of overwhelming love. It’s just too much to handle and she starts forgoing homemade food in favor of vending machine fare and processed food — although she can eventually distinguish where the ingredients are grown and manufactured, usually there is little human contact to rub off on it — and raw fruit and vegetables.
She tries to explain to her family, but her parents write it off as a random oddity (maybe she has the flu?) and her odd, distant older brother has difficulty processing anything emotional, instead preferring the hard facts of science. The only person in her life who is sympathetic is her brother’s friend, George, who does some experimentation to validate her experiences.
Rose is going to have to figure out how to deal with this for the rest of her life — and how to deal with the secrets she learns about those closest to her.
This was a compelling read, although I won’t go so far as to say I liked it. Don’t get me wrong, the author was brilliant, the story was taut, and the novel deserves every single accolade it’s received. But its eventual ending took me to a dark place and that’s just not where I want my fiction to leave me. I recommend it, but caution those who, like Rose, ingest emotions to tread carefully.