Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

I picked this title up because after watching the ALA awards I realized I had read exactly one (or to be more exact 3/4s) of the books that won an Alex Award. I hadn't even heard of most of the books that won either. How disgraceful I thought! Plus, you know, this one had a giant piece of yummy looking cake on the cover so it was only natural that I gravitated toward it.

The story is told by Rose, a girl, who on her 9th birthday begins to have problems with food. But not in any ordinary way. Rose can taste people's feelings in food. She can taste her mother's hollowness, another's anger, her brother's blankness. By the time she graduates high school she can pinpoint food to their state of origin, she can taste the tiredness of the fruit pickers, she knows which factories produced what. It is overwhelming.

I have to say, I was swept away by this book. There is an element of magical realism that I found very appealing. I enjoyed how Rose makes a plea to her scientific brother (this plea falls on deaf ears) and his equally science-focused best friend (who is really the only normal character in the book) who agrees to conduct an experiment which ultimately validates Rose's abilities. The mixture of science to prove a "magical" gift was a lovely touch.

Rose's family is very different, offbeat without really being quirky, although I take that back about her father. His extreme avoidance of hospitals is probably the definition of quirky. The mother is loving and yet somewhat unreliable, the father present in body if absent in spirit, and the brother almost catatonic. I found myself most interested by her brother Joseph. I spent the first half of the book convinced he was severely autistic and the last part thinking he was wildly depressed. The thing is, that like Rose, Joseph has a gift. Unlike Rose, however, we are never privy to what this gift actually is. Although I understand the limitations of the narrative (this book is told solidly from Rose's perspective and she would have no realistic way to discover what her brother was actually experiencing) I still found it a little unsatisfying.

Spoilers --> I mean the dude was turning himself into furniture. What the eff was that about? The author state's Joseph's emptiness from the beginning. When Rose takes a bite of his toast she tastes, " a blankness and graininess, something folding in on itself." so yeah, the fact that his favorite piece of furniture to turn into is their grandmother's folding chair has a nice symmetry. But why was he wanting to disappear? I felt as though Joseph's gift/curse was so unbearable that he couldn't deal with it, he needed to retreat at all costs, but I also felt as though his gift/curse was not turning himself into furniture per se (because wtf kind of of "gift" is that?). I felt as though he used science and reason to learn how to transform his "gift" into that. But a little clarity on this end would have been nice.

Also was he smothered by his mother's love? There has to be something about his mother making furniture and him choosing to become furniture.
<-- end of spoilers.

Anyhow, a great book deserving of the attention the Alex award will undoubtedly bring.

Book Source = Library Copy

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