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.
Excerpted from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Copyright © 2010 by Aimee Bender. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“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
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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