Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

A couple of weeks ago, I checked this book out of the library.  I liked the sound of the title, I liked the cover, I’d heard good things about it so I figured I would at least hold it in my hands to see what it would do.  Melissa emailed me and said “hey, I have it too, let’s read together” which I love to do so I said “okay!” And we read.

And then we discussed because much discussion was warranted.  Much.  Mucho.  Many, many thoughts were thought and spoke… er… well TYPED and here they are.  Actually here is the second half, you’ll have to visit Melissa for the first.  Cautions, it may get a bit spoilery, but all of my feelings on this book are there.  Except for what I thought about the punctuation OR LACK THEREOF and how much that totally bugged me except for the brief moments when I was able to forget that Aimee Bender seems to have something against QUOTATION MARKS.  It kinda makes it hard to decide that hey, that person is saying that and THAT person is thinking that, or did they say that, or was that that person?  Totally baffles me.  Anyhoo, here is the second part of our conversation and it hopefully makes more sense.  I’m sick and doped up and probably not making much sense anyway.  I wasn’t when we talked though, so it should be good.

Stop laughing.  I am sick.  Totally sick. And you shouldn’t laugh at the sick.  😉

Part ONE is here.  Go there then come back.  This is part TWO.

Melissa: I think they were incredibly dysfunctional! I mean, how could Rose’s mom carry on her affair for so many years and her husband never figure it out? Why didn’t she want to leave if she wasn’t happy in her marriage? What were they getting at with their appearance of a happy family? I agree: they knew nothing about each other — think: if her dad had been more open about his childhood, maybe Rose wouldn’t have had to suffer all those years! — and that added to the dysfunction of the story as a whole. What did you think of George? Did you kind of hope he and Rose would get together (I did…)?

Heather: I TOTALLY hoped he and Rose would get together!  He alone seemed to truly understand her and wanted to HELP her adjust to the way her life was going to be.  Their “moment” was my favorite part of the book.  And he was my favorite character.

So I’m curious, what exactly do you think Joseph’s “power” was?  To turn into things?  To simply disappear?  I was kinda confused by all that; seeing as how he would disappear for years only to reappear dehydrated and sick.  You’d think it would have killed him!

Melissa: I agree: George was my favorite character. That, and the cafe owners — can’t remember their names right now. I wanted more of both of them. As for Joseph, I think his skill was turning into things. There was a part where they mentioned he’d been a desk and a bed, but that his favorite was a chair. I think it was impossibly sad that he felt more comfortable as an inanimate object than as a person. Which is surprising, since (according to Rose), he was their mom’s favorite. Maybe he felt suffocated? At any rate, I think he did “die”, even though Rose kept the chair he turned into, just in case.

Did you feel the title fit the book?

Heather: I loved the cafe owners!  I could read a whole book about them!

And I agree. Joseph’s situation was impossibly sad.  I think he probably did feel suffocated.  His mother put everything into him, all her love, all of her thoughts and feelings…I mean even Rose was disgusted by what she perceived as their somewhat incestuous relationship.  It was the only way he could get away.

As for the title… I did like it.  Very much.  It was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book.  I love Lemon Cake and The Particular Sadness of it intrigued me.  I don’t think it’s sad at all, I am happy eating it!  So that attracted me immediately because I had to know what was so sad about it.  I love the irony of it.  So yes, to me, it did fit.  You?

Melissa: I’m not sure. I think on some levels it worked for me, since that was the first trigger Rose had. But, I’m not sure, in the end, it worked for me. It was so much more than lemon cake and sadness. But, saying that, I’m not sure what I would have named it. (I guess that’s kind of a cop out on my part, isn’t it?) Any last thoughts?

Heather: Not really.  I’m still vaguely disappointed by the book, but chatting with you about it has helped me clear my head about it in many ways.  All in all I think it was a good read, but I really think Bender could have done more with the premise.  I’d still read another book by her.  How about you?

Melissa: I think, much the same. Bender has some great ideas; perhaps there’s another book by her that has a better execution? Or maybe I just expected something more Sarah Addison Allen-ish, and I wasn’t open-minded enough about it all. I agree, though: I’d read another book by her. It’s been fun chatting about the book with you, too.

Heather: Oh my gosh, you’re right! I think I was expecting something more Sarah Addison Allenish.  Thank you, you just put my finger on my problem with the book.

It has been fun!  We need to do it again!

Melissa: Yes, we do!

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
Amazon says this is LITERARY
Published by: Doubleday
Format: Hardback
Pages: 304
On Sale: June 1, 2010
ISBN: 978-0385501125
I got this book from the library. Remember?

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

  1. I really enjoyed the format of this book discussion. Thank you so much for allowing us to peer into your private book club. I think your comment, "chatting about the book has helped clear my head" is one of the greatest advantages of taking part in a group read.

  2. I totally forgot to comment on the lack of quotation marks. That drove me nuts, too! What did she think it would add to the book?? Seriously.

    It was fun doing this with you. Hope you feel better soon.

  3. Great buddy review, ladies! I loved it (but skipped a little in hopes of avoiding spoileriness).

    HEATHER, you're the only person on earth I've seen mention Sima's Undergarments for Women (on your Currently Reading montage). I saw it at a bookstore last weekend and wanna try it. Let me know how you like it.

  4. I really wanted to read this book after I heard about it on Books on the Nightstand but now I think I'm just going to skip it. I have way too many other books to read right now anyway. It's a shame, it has such a nice cover and great title.

  5. Well since I wasn't so wild about the only Sarah Addison Allen book I read, maybe I would enjoy this one more. It does seem to have a lot to discuss which might make it a good choice for my book club.

  6. This was the most grammatically frustrating book I ever read! I kept reading because I thought it would all fit together somehow…the eating…the chair..but it never really did and the last line of the book was very lame. The book was all over the place and I read it at the beach and was not relaxing at all. I would not recommend this to anyone…and I mad I paid $20 for it!

    1. I was extremely disappointed and mortified by Joseph. wow. Didn’t see how he turned into a chair. WHAT?! well that escalated quickly. anyway since i didn’t even pick up on his “transformation” i had thought he was part of a gang (where he was disappearing to and coming back with bruises) and they amputated his legs??????? then she was like “well he couldn’t have had an amputation b/c there is no blood” honey if its an amputation it wouldn’t STILL be bleeding which even though ridiculous is more realistic then him TURNING INTO A CHAIR. whatever. sorry for the rant guys.

  7. My son is a voracious reader and when he purchased the book, he knew I would also read it. A year ago, his dad committed suicide. I think this book has helped him put his emotions into words, until now, perhaps.

    I loved the way the author was able to communicate Rose's age through her style of prose: it began almost like the fluffiness of a dime store romance as Rose perceives her life as a naive 9 year old child. I thought that if this style persisted, I couldn't finish the book (ala New Moon, GAG!) But as Rose's world came into focus with maturity, the writing adjusted accordingly, a tribute to Aimee Bender's talent. Aimee was effectively able to dissect the raw human emotions of all the characters. I kept thinking of the phrase "She's eating her emotions". Poor Rose was eating EVERYONE's emotions. Kind of like how the kid felt about his "talent" in the Sixth Sense. Carrying the weight of their world.

    I had a hard time determining what the intended age range of the audience was. Feels like it could be a good high school age read. But confusing.

    The lack of punctuation might be a trend. I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy and he did the same thing. As in all the Arts, something new is tried – an attempt to minimalize details to get to the meat of the meaning. I agree, though, it is disconcerting., but worth dealing with since it could be a new direction for writers to try for a while.

    The first two-thirds of the book held up well, but the last third unraveled unintentionally. It felt like the editor got busy and abandoned Bender, and the readers. Metaphors are great but there needed to be more of a suitable explanation of what was really wrong with Joseph. He felt more important as a chair? Seriously? Please. He could transform? Is he a character in one of Kafka's novels? Nice try but not resolved. Again, editor???? And, why did he transform? His mother adored him (maybe too much), Rose looked up to him and wanted the friendship, but this kind of transformation would be more analagous to a situation where the parents either hated or ignored him. I think his father gave up on him as a result of the behavior, not the other way around. Could meds have helped Joseph??? Or, in cases of child abuse (as in Sybil) when they morph into other characters. Is this what was happening??

    I don't think Joseph dies. Given his mental state, he probably wandered away to live on the streets somewhere. Whenever I see a person bundled up and talking to themselves, I wonder if their family knows where they are and think they're dead. I want to think that he's rescued and after living in a shelter, he is able to turn his life around and someday return home. Am I as naive as 9 year-old Rose? But, I think this may resolve in one of Bender's future books. Please???

  8. I actually really liked this book-but it broke my heart.I think that what was wrong with Joseph was that he could feel everything that everyone else was feeling. Rose felt it in food, her grandfather in smell, but I think Joseph felt it with no parameters.Imagine how it would feel to know the misery of his parents, every second of every day. That is for me what drove him into a kind of insanity.I think he found a way to disappear into something-picking a factory chair because he wouldn't have to feel the feelings of who made the chair.Obviously Bender's use of magical thinking is sometimes hard to wrap your head around. But the themes are still very reachable for me. Do we really ever know anyone? Would we want to know another's pain-truly? Very interesting book, and unlike anything I have ever read.

      1. Huh!! I never thought of it that way but now, I see how it may be true. I still hope Bender writes a sequel, though. With quotations and explanations.

  9. I like Jennifer's question about whether or not we would ever truly want to know another person's pain. To me, whether we want to face it or not, we all share in some form of suffering and pain by simply being alive. In this way, Bender gives Joseph a "power" that is both magical and always inside us all, the power to suffer. The difference between us and Joseph is that we can not so much turn it off, like Rose's dad not going to hospitals, but turn it into something beautiful, creative, and positive. Only by not allowing Joseph to escape the pain and suffering in the world, does Bender force the reader to look at his or her own pain and decide what to do with it. In a lot of ways, this book is freeing. I can definitely understand how reading this book helped Georgette's son come to some sort of terms with his father's suicide.

  10. Just finished the book and am totally lost. Beautiful writing, and as an old English teacher, I had very little trouble with the lack of quotations. I also have no idea what happened with Joseph, and I worry about the maternal grandmother. Supposedly, the strangeness came from the father's side of the family, but the mother's side was strange too, and the grandmother was 'crazy' but ignored. All in all, I am disappointed because I learned very little and am left with lots of confusion.

  11. It has been most enlightening reading the reviews and all the comments. What a great way to test if what i read into the book is what other people did too; i kept thinking there was something more that I was missing, but seems I was right about what happens to Joseph. Jennifer's comment is particularly interesting to me as i thought becoming an object was simply Joseph's talent. Perhaps as she suggests, he could escape the oppressive emotions of the family and the pain of the people around him. I didn't think of it this way. I quite enjoyed the lack of inverted commas when the people were speaking / thinking and found it quite freeing to be able read unhindered by it all.

  12. Not, gonna lie, I haven't read a book for pleasure in a long time. I've been too busy with work and school. The only reason I read this book was because the title and the book cover caught my eye. The premise sounded so intriguing, but the whole time I was reading it, I was wishing for more. I felt like it had so much potential, but was lacking in a lot of categories. Also I totally agree with the whole lack of quotation marks! I hated how I had to guess what was being said and what were thoughts. After reading this, I'm going to try something by Sarah Addison Allen. Any suggestions?

  13. I lyk this book. But i m not a fan of how it ends. I really love george. Especially when he paid attention to rose. Its not fair that they dint end up together. Would have been nice 4 rose to have someone who made her happy at the end. I think i understand why d father was detached. He experienced his fathers gift and saw how it burdened him. He just wanted a simple uncomplicated life. But his silence made things complicated. If he had opened up, rose would have opened up also and known how to handle her gift. Joseph… I just wish he wasnt so sad. I think he could feel stuff too. And turning into things… He just cldnt deal with things like rosd could. And rose’ mom she lived in her head i guess. The book was ok.
    Al in al it just goes to show that life doesnt always have happy endings or throw what we want our way.

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