Monday, August 28, 2017

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: It tastes empty

Remember roughly a million years ago (or like, 7, but at the rate things are going right now, it may as well have been a million) when everyone was reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? Here I am, late to the party. Fashionably late, let's say, to make me feel better.

Anyway, a friend was downsizing her bookshelves (something I totally need to do) and among the books she was getting rid of was this one, which I thought "Hey, free book!"

For those who aren't familiar with the plot, a young Rose finds that she can taste the emotion in food of the person who prepared it. She learns this when her mother, who seems so happy, bakes a lemon cake for her birthday and it tastes terrible. Like depression. From here we have an insular story of a family that seems happy on the surface but is suffering underneath, something that it seems only Rose is able to see. Or taste, as it were.

Eating becomes a hassle because, it turns out, everyone who makes everything ever is super angry or depressed when they cook. She eats a lot of vending machine food which isn't to say it's made with love, but it is made by machines who don't drip their petty human emotions into the food.

Later she can determine where food is from which, I guess specific places have emotions? And the emotion is "This egg is from Michigan." Even though it would have been more interesting to get the feelings of the animal if we're going to go several layers down in this "tasting emotion" thing but whatever.

She tries to talk to her science-obsessed brother about this "power" though he's too wrapped up in his own world to pay too much attention. Joseph has his own stuff going on.

I liked the conceit better than the execution.

Stories about families that seem happy but have their problems is not, generally, my favorite genre (though shout out to Everything I Never Told You for being a kick ass book in this vein) but if it's done well I can get behind it. And maybe if the book had used Rose's gift/curse as a jumping off point to dig more into the family instead of focusing so much on what food outside the home tasted like or other magical realism/surrealism elements, I would been more on board. As it was, it felt like pieces of the family history and emotions were touched upon but we never got deep into them, as we were too busy with other magic. And really, I know it sounds like nonsense that I'm like "Less magic, more suburban ennui" but seriously, that's how super not into the magic I was. I liked the beginning with Rose and her magical tastebuds but the more we dug into it and other stuff, the more I wanted to back away.

I did like the writing. I appreciated Bender's descriptions (at times) when Rose would eat something.
I made my own pretzels! [her mother'd] announced at 4 p.m., turning off the oven, whipping her hair into a fresh ponytail. I had to taste them - she had presented a few tiny warm pretzels on a plate to me with such a look of triumph and hope - and it turned out to be the food that best represented her: in every pretzel the screaming desire to make the perfect pretzel, so that the pretzel itself seemed tied up in the tightest of knots, the food form, for once, matching the content.
So there were good features of the book.

There was another thing that I would say turned me on the book, but it's spoilery so, you've been warned.
Her brother turns into furniture. Yup. Furniture. Like he wants to get away from things and possibly it's depression so he will randomly become furniture and no one in the family knows where he's gone, just that he's disappeared. But we don't actually learn too much about him. Beyond, I guess, that he especially likes to become a folding chair that used to belong to his grandma.
Spoilers contained.

So yeah, I think it was an interesting concept that unfortunately got a bit too muddled.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 12

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Anchor Books, 2010.