Some books really take the biscuit – and do wonders with it.
Publisher: Windmill (Random House)
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2012
Rose has always loved her mother’s cakes, but one day she finds the enjoyment ruined – as she eats, her mother’s feelings somehow swamp her and the reality of what the woman’s life is like is distressing. In a short time she learns that this is now the case with every food, finding that eating anything at all handmade results in her discovering the feelings and thoughts of every single person who has aided in the creation of the food. She will learn a lot about her family in the process, but it will affect her life ever more.
The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake is a very strange book. At once depressing and intriguing, the latter for its paranormal element, it is a book that doesn’t really fit into any genres.
The reader should know that by picking up the book they are enveloping themselves in hours or days, depending on reading speed, of upset – indeed this reviewer had judged that this book was going to leave her an emotional wreck, and she read it on a dull Sunday when there was no studying to do and no reason for her to need to feel positive. It proved to be a good decision.
The story is told in the first person, and Bender’s style of writing is curiously interesting. She writes dialogue without quotations and the text itself falls somewhere between a child’s and an adult’s as she speaks as nine year old Rose. It can be hard to get used to, but as Rose gets older the mix of styles makes more sense and looses its oddness to be something very enjoyable and refreshing.
This theme of a paranormal gift could have gone horribly wrong, and let’s not forget that in fiction such as this – quite “literary” and not featuring vampires – there tends to be an emphasis on the realistic. The basic summary and Rose’s gift may not seem too fantastical for such fiction, but Bender later takes it further into realms that straddle the fence between the very imaginative and the horrifying. Yet Bender’s story is so readable and well thought out, that the weirdness doesn’t matter, and instead what matters are the feelings of Rose. It’s a sort of acceptance where you step beyond reality to embrace Rose’s world unconsciously, meaning that although you can pinpoint the fantasy, it doesn’t effect you in a way that makes it unbelievable – although there is one element that is difficult to accept and that requires an interpretation in order to read without mirth (for it could be said that in a way the book is more metaphor than literal). Simply put, the reader can emphasise with Rose, truly putting themselves in her shoes in every way. Although that doesn’t mean that Rose is a good character to read about, indeed some of her more real-life choices are quite disappointing.
The book is bogged down by depression, family issues, communication problems, and anxiety. It is one of those works where you can give it as high a rating as you want, but still have trouble saying whether you actually enjoyed it. The domestic situation it presents is one that is very real to some families – the reader is likely to know of a real-life situation similar, be it close to them or through stories in the news. As someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, although she cannot say it was the same as Rose’s, this reviewer can report that some of the success in the reader’s mind is very likely to depend on how much they can relate to the situation. And the story is a good representation of how issues are passed on down the generations – Rose’s grandmother has problems loving others, and it’s a similar sort of issue that has passed down to Rose and her brother. The family in the book is of a dysfunctional nature that aligns with an inability to communicate.
Rose’s brother is cause for discussion that can’t happen in a review, many times you wonder what happened and why, but piecing everything together an explanation can be found in his relationship to his mother and the way she made him feel. Her actions and his do seem to align, albeit in a peculiar way. You can also see where he feels trapped, although the feeling of wanting to be alone is not explained. In fact, the lack of explanation in most cases plays a big reason why this book did not receive a higher rating.
Bender does provide stark contrasts throughout to demonstrate where the family has gone wrong and how problems, especially for Rose, could be solved. She presents the minor and secondary characters as a ray of hope, and shows the way in which relations between Rose and those people deteriorate. Hindsight may be a wonderful thing, yet one senses that Rose’s situation is so bad that she might never experience it. But even if Rose cannot see her way out at times, the positive nature of the minor characters is like a beacon when you’re reading and helps lift the mood enough to allow you to read on.
A lot has been said by others on the themes of coping with your life. While this was not the focus of my reading (I concentrated on the communication issues and negative family situation) it fits in with elements I picked up on, such as Rose’s determination to keep an old stool her father had made for her mother – Rose’s hope being to retain some of the love and presence of regular marriage between her parents. Indeed the way that Rose’s choices are disappointing collides with this topic of coping in the way that the only way Rose can live is to keep things the way they are, even at the expense of her happiness. She recognises hope and difference in her relationships with her friends and her first love, but actively pulls back from them. While not really explained, it is easy to see Rose as a guardian of her own feelings, as well as being so stuck in emotional poverty that she is too scared to try alternative ways of living. It becomes a case of a girl who is very astute at knowing how others feel, not really knowing what she wants herself. And in the poor choices she makes for her life, for surely they are poor choices, one can see how she’s become so used to her life that she doesn’t want to leave it.
The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake is difficult to discuss as words elude a thorough description just as they are not a part of the gifts presented. It is most certainly recommended with the advice to look beyond the text at what words cannot say.