About the Book:On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.
Read an Excerpt
It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.
My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.
How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches of twinned red cherries.
On the kitchen counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm-eyed mother were welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of brown-sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.
She said there was about an hour to go, so I pulled out my spelling booklet. Can I help? I asked, spreading out pencils and papers on the vinyl place mats.
Nah, said Mom, whisking the flour and baking soda together.
My birthday is in March, and that year it fell during an especially bright spring week, vivid and clear in the narrow residential streets where we lived just a handful of blocks south of Sunset. The night-blooming jasmine that crawled up our neighbor’s front gate released its heady scent at dusk, and to the north, the hills rolled charmingly over the horizon, houses tucked into the brown. Soon, daylight savings time would arrive, and even at nearly nine, I associated my birthday with the first hint of summer, with the feeling in classrooms of open windows and lighter clothing and in a few months no more homework. My hair got lighter in spring, from light brown to nearly blond, almost like my mother’s ponytail tassel. In the neighborhood gardens, the agapanthus plants started to push out their long green robot stems to open up to soft purples and blues.
Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had one bowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles.
A cake challenge like this wasn’t a usual afternoon activity; my mother didn’t bake all that often, but what she enjoyed most was anything tactile, and this cake was just one in a long line of recent varied hands-on experiments. In the last six months, she’d
coaxed a strawberry plant into a vine, stitched doilies from vintage lace, and in a burst of motivation installed an oak side door in my brother’s bedroom with the help of a hired contractor. She’d been working as an office administrator, but she didn’t like copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when my father paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him if she could take some time off and learn to do more with her hands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hips against his; my hands have had no lessons in anything.
Anything? he’d asked, holding tight to those hands. She laughed, low. Anything practical, she said.
They were right in the way, in the middle of the hall, as I was leaping from room to room with a plastic leopard. Excuse me, I said.
He breathed in her hair, the sweet- smelling thickness of it. My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped in his two-footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the
call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird-watcher. Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back.
Rah, said the leopard, heading back to its lair.
At the kitchen table, I flipped through my workbook, basking in the clicking sounds of a warming oven. If I felt a hint of anything unsettling, it was like the sun going swiftly behind a cloud only to shine straight seconds later. I knew vaguely that my parents had had an argument the night before, but parents had arguments all the time, at home and on TV. Plus, I was still busily going over the bad point scoring from lunch, called by Eddie Oakley with the freckles, who never called fairly. I read through my spelling booklet: knack, knick, knot; cartwheel, wheelbarrow, wheelie. At the counter, Mom poured thick yellow batter into a greased cake pan, and smoothed the top with the flat end of a pink plastic spatula. She checked the oven temperature, brushed
a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead with the knob of her wrist.
Here we go, she said, slipping the cake pan into the oven.
When I looked up, she was rubbing her eyelids with the pads of her fingertips. She blew me a kiss and said she was going to lie down for a little bit. Okay, I nodded. Two birds bickered outside. In my booklet, I picked the person doing a cartwheel and colored her shoes with red laces, her face a light orange. I made a vow to bounce the ball harder on the playground, and to bounce it right into Eddie Oakley’s corner. I added some apples to the wheelbarrow freehand.
The room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugar and lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulled out the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet. The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go, and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I really couldn’t possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan, to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongy chunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped the whole thing into my mouth.
“Moving, fanciful, and gorgeously strange.” —People
“One of the year’s highlights. Intense and compelling.” —The Oregonian
“Marvelous. . . . Few writers are as adept as Bender at mingling magical elements so seamlessly with the ordinary.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A richly imagined, bittersweet tale.” —Vanity Fair
“Convincing and elegant. . . . A novel with a deeply involving plot, one full of provocative ideas.” —The Boston Globe
“Extraordinary. . . . Not just a deeply felt novel but one of the most inventive pieces of food writing in recent memory.” —Time Out New York
“Profound and eye-opening. . . . You feel—that rare and beautiful gift from a truly great book—woken up and unalone.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Rose is an irresistible narrator: warm, witty and sharply observant. . . . Exuberant, life-affirming.” —The Miami Herald
“Oddly beautiful. . . . Will tempt you to see what talented writers can do when they rip little tears in the fabric of reality.” —The Washington Post
“The fairy-tale elements in her writing, far from seeming outlandish, highlight the everyday nature of her characters’ flaws and struggles. In Ms. Bender’s stories and novels, relationships and mundane activities take on mythic qualities.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Charming and wistful. . . . [Rose] studies her world with the thoroughness of a scientist but records her observations with the eye and ear of a poet.” —The Atlantic
“The fabulist elements of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake are stunning, but what makes this novel a keeper is the sheer beauty of the language Bender uses to describe love.” —NPR, “Books We Like”
“[The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake] has the narrative momentum and clockwork plotting of any good mystery, but its bleak whimsy and clear-eyed rendering of domestic sorrow are Bender’s own. . . . Splendid.” —The Plain Dealer
“Rose comes of age while unraveling family secrets as strangely lucid as they are nightmarish. At its core . . . The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake encourages us all to make the most of our unique gifts while still finding a way to live in the so-called real world.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A dreamy novel. . . . This is one of the most pleasant books we’ve read all year.” —The New York Observer
“Deftly written. . . . There is a . . . sweetness to the book that turns it into something out of the ordinary.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Bender is the master of quiet hysteria. . . . She builds pressure sentence by sentence. . . . A little hiss of steam comes off the novel.” —Los Angeles Times
“A very special book.” —The Anniston Star
“Bender doesn’t write of ordinary people. She writes of magical creations, the things of fairy tales gone awry. . . . Part magic, part clean prose.” —Denver Post
“If you’ve ever wondered why people have such a hard time looking in strangers’ eyes as they walk down the street, this book, hard as it may be to face, is for you.” —LA Weekly
“There’s an evocative power in Bender’s work that lingers with a reader.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“[Bender] produce[s] stories that make one grateful for being ordinary.” —The Seattle Times
“[A] gentle, kindhearted novel. There’s a wistful quality to the almost fable-like tale that’s captured with near perfection in her understated prose. As in all fine novels, the Edelsteins’ story, in Aimee Bender’s telling, is one that reflects our own world back to us in a fresh and revealing way.” —Bookreporter.com
“The ultimate fact is that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is probably the strangest book you’ll never want to put down.” —Pittsburgh Tribune
“Aimee Bender creates a lilting, economical and finally tragic portrait of what it means to be a child in her exquisite new novel.” —Chicago Tribune
“Lemon Cake perfectly embodies Bender’s knack for simultaneously appealing to imagination, emotion, and intellect, combining an out-of-this-world premise with very much in-this-world characters.” —Portland Mercury
“Aimee Bender is also something of a sorceress who charges her stories with pure magic, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is an example of what she does best.” —Jewish Journal
About This Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Aimee Bender's lush and moving new novel, A The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
About This Book
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.
Question & Answer
1. Rose goes through life feeling people’s emotions through their food. Many eat to feel happy and comforted. Does this extreme sensory experience bring any happiness to Rose or only sadness?
2. What does Rose mean when she says her dad always seemed like a guest to her? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?
3. “Mom's smiles were so full of feeling that people leaned back a little when she greeted them. It was hard to know just how much was being offered.” What does Rose mean and how does this trait affect her mother’s relationships?
4. Why do you think Rose's dad liked medical dramas but hated hospitals?
5. Rose says, “Mom loved my brother more. Not that she didn’t love me— I felt the wash of her love everyday, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water. I was her darling daughter; Joseph was her it.” Do you think Rose is right in her estimation and why do you think her mother might feel this way?
6. What does the grandmother suggest when she tells Rose “you don’t even know me, how can you love me?” How has the grandmother’s relationship with Rose’s own mother affected the family dynamic?
7. What is Joseph trying to accomplish by drawing a "perfect" circle when it, by very definition, is impossible? How does George’s idea to create wallpaper out of the imperfections affect him? How does validation and affection through art recur in the novel and what does it signify?
8. Why does George suddenly conclude Rose’s gift isn’t really a problem and stops investigating it?
9. What is the significance of the mother’s commitment to carpentry (compared to other, short-lived hobbies)? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?
10. What is the impact of Rose's discovery about her father's skills? Did this change the way you see the father?
11. Joseph is described as a desert and geode while Rose is a rainforest and sea glass. Discuss the implications.
12. Why does Rose want to keep the thread-bare footstool of her parents’ courtship instead of having her mother make her a new one?
13. Are the family dinners—with Joseph reading, the dad eating, Rose silently trying to survive the meal and the mom talking non-stop—emblematic of the family dynamic? How has it evolved over the years?
14. How did you experience the scene in Joseph's room, when Rose goes to see him? What did that experience mean to Rose? Is there any significance to Joseph choosing a card table chair?
15. What does the last image about the trees have to do with this family? How do you interpret the last line of the novel?
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About This Author
Aimee Bender is the author of the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own and the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her work has been widely anthologized and has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; Helen Grant, The Vanishing Act of Katharina Linden; Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club, The Radleys; Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife; DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To; Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y, Our Tragic Universe