Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

On the eve of her ninth birthday Rose samples the homemade lemon cake her mother has made and she is overwhelmed. Within the pale yellow slice and chocolate icing, there lurks Rose's mother's sadness and longing. From then on, Rose's sensitivity to the feelings within food only grows. We follow her into her twenties and watch how her special ability can hurt. Rose explores her relationship with her family: her distant father with a phobia of hospitals, her emotional mother, and her sullen older brother.

This book had so much potential. I was primed to fall madly in love with it. Like the beautiful Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, it set itself in a realm of magical realism. Magical realism is grounded in the real world, but accepts the possibility of the fantastic in daily life- that the things we feel can manifest themselves tangibly.
The first few chapters were like a sweet little dance, drawing you in, flirting with you. The book had an engaging premise and Bender has a good grasp of language, but she failed to bring in the necessary third element: plot follow-through. The story felt half finished, unresolved. It fizzled out with an anti-climax. There were some other fantastic elements introduced besides Rose's ability, such as a plot line regarding her brother and his mysterious disappearances. Ultimately this fell flat and became disorienting. I thought the discovery of her grandfather's similar ability felt like a sloppy quick fix to her relationship with her father.
As the book drew to a close and a promising romantic plot was abandoned, Rose is finally pushed onto a path with some possibility, but we never have any resolution to her story. There is an attempt to embrace her special skill (which makes normal eating almost impossible to sustain), but the ending feels like an afterthought in many ways.
What's good about this book? The beautiful writing and descriptions. What's not so good? The lack of plot movement and unresolved ending. I would attempt the author again because I think she has a strong voice that I enjoy, and hopefully better develops her story in other books.

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