The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

by Aimee Bender


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385720960
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/19/2011
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 140,341
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Aimee Bender is the author of the novels The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—a New York Times bestseller—and An Invisible Sign of My Own, and of the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her works have been widely anthologized and have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in Los Angeles.

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.

Reading Group 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.

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?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

Customer Reviews

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 722 reviews.
thewanderingjew More than 1 year ago
This is an unusual little book which is told in the voice of a nine year old girl with a special talent. Rose can taste the mood and emotions of the people who have prepared the food she eats. It makes it very hard for her to eat food and enjoy it since she feels the emotions almost as physical pain. The book is hard to put it down. You, the reader, want to discover from where this strange gift comes and whether or not it can be controlled. The story takes you through parental relationships, sibling relationships and teenage relationships with all the drama these relationships encompass. It really holds your interest, but, in the end, there are a lot of questions left unanswered. Although the characters are well developed, they have holes in their history and explanations for particular behaviors fall short of the mark. Also, the paranormal plays a large role in this book, but it is not given enough importance. It is treated almost as an afterthought and yet the book turns on the supernatural capabilities of the characters. Often there are scenes and major events occurring which seem to require deeper exploration but they are passed over as if they are simply commonplace and are largely ignored by the characters. The disappearance of a brother is dismissed casually, as if, this happens all the time and he will reappear. Yet, it is not a casual disappearance. A father's inability to enter a hospital is dismissed as quirkiness when it is far more than that. Still, I would recommend the book. It is also a tender story about people who are unable to express their feelings in normal ways. They all harbor secrets. In the end, the nine year old child is a young woman who finds herself through trial and error as she works out her family issues and her personal ones. She seems the most well adjusted when the book concludes, as she makes use of her gift and learns to deal with her unusual life successfully. She, above all, seems to understand the people around her as well, and is accepting and forgiving of all their shortcomings.
TenorMan More than 1 year ago
Very interesting plot -- I couldn't put the book down until I found some closure. Bender uses exceptionally elegant language and poetic devices. The story is enthralling, albeit a bit dark and (at times) depressing. This book is one of a kind. A very fast read. The fusion of a real-life scenario, whimsical characteristics, and complete fantasy is perhaps a bit overwhelming -- but once again, I couldn't put it down.
nsjjones More than 1 year ago
At one point Bender describes popular, accomplished girls in a bicycle club as "living in a miraculous Escherian land that offered only downhills." Rose, Walter, Mom, Dad, Grandparents live in a land where they struggle uphill, yearning to take that Escherian path, but at the crest of a hill, when they've hardened their legs into muscular pistons, they soar into the air like ET. Bender's understated tone in discussing the most fantastic occurrences lulls the reader into thinking one way until she almost get whiplash at the turns. I think I may have to read everything Bender writes, distinctive punctuation and all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was intriqued by the premise of this story and couldn't wait to read the book. About 40 pages in, I kept wondering what was wrong with the book and why could I not make myself read it. (It actually made my head hurt). Besides the characters being dull and unimaginative, Bender's writing style is strange. Why did she choose not to put quotation marks around her characters remarks? This is a pretty basic thing and one that I was taught never to avoid. Where was her editor? I feel cheated and will not finish the book. Save your time and money and do not buy this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was extremely boring and I laboriously read through the ridiculous end of the plot.....if you want to call it that. I cannot understand how anyone could describe this book as "lovely". Bizarre premise for a book, and a complete waste of time!!!
MiamiCyn More than 1 year ago
I just can't. No matter how hard I try, I can't finish reading this book. When a friend told me about the book (she had not read it) I was intrigued and thought how great this idea was but the formatting and the lack of quote marks just ruin the reading experience. I have picked my nook up again and again to make an effort but to no avail. :-(
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
What a lovely book! The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the story of Rose Edelstein, a young girl who can taste people's feelings in the food they cook. As she struggles to come to terms with her magical skill she reaches out to the people around her - her mother whose hollowness taints family dinners, her silent and mysterious brother, his golden, sparkling, genius friend, and her befuddled, oblivious dad. Aimee Bender has an amazing ability to create intriguing and charming characters and then turn them loose to see what happens. It feels like the people in this book are so genuine and real, their actions so true to who they are, that they must have written they story themselves. Like the magical abilities possessed by the Edelsteins, it is often hard to pin down exactly what is happening and where the book is going. Yet the feelings evoked by her unique writing style are delightful. Reading this book was truly a magical experience! I will never taste food in the same way again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the characters and overall story line to be quite brilliant. Although I did want more explanation on Rose's brothers gift, it was still enough explanation to get me to grasp it all and love it. It is also written extremely well. Great combinations of fantasy, thrill and emotion to carry you through the whole book. Although I did not find a beginning, middle and end with this book that is another reason why I loved it, it keeps you guessing the entire time. A must read for sure!
katyfitz More than 1 year ago
I saw this book in the store and chose "Read in Store" on my Nook, then I ended up purchasing the eBook. I found the beginning to be very engaging and fun and it drew me into the story. However, once in, there seemed to be something lacking, but I am not sure what. The story becomes very face-paced and then it felt like we rushed through the action and the characters and then the book ends -- with me wanting more. I wanted more resolution of the story and of the characters and I wanted a more complete ending. Other than that, it was entertaining.
DblGee More than 1 year ago
This was a great idea but without a doubt one of the dumbest books I've ever read. By the end of it I felt cheated of the time I spent reading it and the money from my book budget to purchase it.
MattCH More than 1 year ago
This is the perfect book for the type of person who can literally feel time pass or sense the depth of feelings in a room, and is overwhelmed by that at time while not ever wanting to really stop feeling it. It's thought provoking, heartbreaking, and in a strange way exhilarating.
Nooking-For-A-Good-Book More than 1 year ago
I wanted to like this book BUT, it was so sad and the characters were detached from each other. The parents were self-absorbed and without real feeling. The mother was a trainwreck and an airhead. Father was clueless. The brother was a strange character and I really didn't understand what happened to him. The writing was such that, I just didn't get it. The main character, Rose, was a charming, tortured little girl, but when she grew up, she was depressed and lost. Just not a good read and yes, no punctuation was a real turn off. Buy a good vampire book (Sookie Stackhouse Series) if you want some escapism or fantasy!
donna128 More than 1 year ago
I found the book difficult to read and the storyline unimaginative and lacking. I forced myself to finish the book for our book club and thought the ending was disappointing.
bellevueblogger More than 1 year ago
I started out enjoying this book and the original premise was interesting but the one thread of the plot line was just too far out there for me to suspend disbelief and enjoy.
KathyS More than 1 year ago
To describe a story like this is almost impossible. I'll try to give it my best shot. We see a little girl, Rose, of nine, having her world turned upside down, as she comes to find she has a gift. Or is it a power, or curse? All depending how she comes to see it; to see within another's emotions, clearer than they, themselves, can, and with details that only she knows how to interpret. How does she keep this to herself? What does it do to her, and to her family, over time? We find out. Her family: Mother, father, brother, all have their secrets, and as she tastes her mother's food, she starts finding those secrets; They start to come to the surface. She has a grandmother who she's never seen, but sends strange gifts to the family. What do we learn from this reclusive grandmother, by way of these strange gifts? We learn about the family. Do we learn about ourselves in this process? That's left up to you. We see family photographs, where everyone interprets their settings as something different. We find more stories within stories, where history comes to us by way of the interpreter. Rose learns who these people are: Her mother, father, and brother. Rose learns about herself, as she grows within this family. This writer, Aimee Bender, takes us into the world of part science; part psychology, and part fairytale....and the remaining part is something so surreal, as to make you hold your breath, suspend those beliefs, and enter that world of sadness Rose finds, which makes you want to believe, or cry, or smile, as these hidden secrets start to surface...we're propelled through space, without realizing when, or if, we've taken that next breath. I literally couldn't sit this book down, until I came to the end. And when you come to the end, you know it's just the beginning. Aimee Bender is a fantastical, lyrical, interpretive writer. Her details catch you off guard, in a beautiful way; putting those details together, in her own uniqueness, will keep you spellbound.
jchoch More than 1 year ago
I don't understand the negative comments. Loved this book
Wendy McHenry More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the writing style and even enjoyed the concept of the main character's special skill, but found the brother too weird to swallow. The end left a bitter taste...
Disappointed4 More than 1 year ago
I had a difficult time even finishing this book; set it aside 3 times. If was extremely strange, way beyond belief. Not enjoyable. One of the reviews on the jacket says it all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I pushed myself to get to the end of this book just to see how it would conclude. It was a very strange story, and I don't think I would reccommend it to anyone.
Karen56 More than 1 year ago
This book was too bazaar for me. Couldn't get to the point where I wanted to keep reading it, had no Quotes at all so you didn't know if it was a sentence, a thought until it said (he said or she said) for the hundredth time. Too many repeats of the same thing. The editor did not do this book justice. Aimee find another editor for better reviews to boost your sales. Sorry.
Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Nine year old Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon cake and discovers she can taste her mother's emotions in the cake. Is this a magical gift or an enormous burden? From that day on food becomes the enemy. She can't eat anything without tasting the emotions of the person who made it. Factory processed food becomes her menu of choice because it is made mostly by machines that have no emotions. When she eats anything prepared by her mother she tastes the lies, desperation and despair. Food prepared by her brother without tasting how miserable he feels about his life. With the help of one of her brother's friends she tests herself and tries to understand the magnitude of this "gift". She tastes many things about her own family, secrets she wished she didn't know, but she also realizes there are some secrets her enhanced taste buds do not understand. Again this type of story is not one I would usually read and I think I will have to change, and add books with a little fantasy to my preferred genres. This book was a little sad and depressing in places but the story moved right along and kept the pages turning. I don't want to give the whole storyline away, but I will say it ended sooner than I would have liked. As Rose started to understand her ability and was moving ahead with her life, the story ended and I feel there was a little more to tell. With that said, I did like this book To find out more about this author, visit her web page at Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the Doubleday Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am an avid reader and was very intrigued by this book. I had read a few positve reviews and purchased it last week. The book was utterly ridiculous. It moved very slowly, with very little dialogue. I made my self plow through to the end because I felt certain that there would be a huge "ah ha" moment. NOPE..Not even close. A complete waste of time and money. Not a redeeming quality to be found.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this but the author's refusal to use quotation marks in dialogue is really annoying me. It conveys a passivity that is distracting from the story. I keep trying to figure out if the characters are thinking rather than speaking. Way too much work for a summer read.
luvlylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Listened to the NLS Talking Book version. Would have been a great book if the author had remembered that stories should generally have a plot and an ending. It seemed like the story stopped way too early. I need resolution. I need to find out why the characters had these weird genetic mutations. None of this is explained. The book itself seems more like a character study of the girl/woman and how she wanders through adolescence. I just kept wanting something more, something deeper. It never happened.
silenceiseverything on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow! Talk about major disappointment. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was one of those books that was hyped up like you wouldn't believe in 2010. Therefore, I do what I almost always do, put the book off until the hype has died down some to avoid being vilified if I have a less than favorable impression of it. I finally decided to bite the bullet and read this book because I love books with magical realism embedded into it. Again, I say major disappointment.The idea of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was spectacular. Does it seriously get any better than a chick who can taste other people's emotions and feelings with the food they cook? No, it really doesn't (at least for us, it does get mildly suckish for her though). So the idea was great, throughout the beginning. However, the author failed to take it to a deeper level throughout the second half of the novel. The book just meandered through with no direction whatsoever. Sure, Rose's gift was intriguing, but Rose herself wasn't enough to keep me fully interested. It literally took me a week to read this book when it would usually take me about two maybe three days, tops.So, alas, love and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake were just not meant to be for me as a pair. The book would've made an awesome short story, but the plot just seemed to go on the backburner once the book kept going. Oh, and the no quotation marks thing was also seriously annoying. We all learn in elemantary school that grammar and punctuation are important. So it puts me off a bit when I see books and their writers praised for using this particular technique after having the opposite beat down into my brain for years.