We all remember our parents telling us not to play with our food. Imagine if your food played with you. Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a slightly magical story about Grace, a young girl who possesses a special power. Every time she eats, the feelings of the person who made the food comes across in her taste buds. Sometimes happy, more often sad, Grace's food dominates her every thought.
Grace comes from a simple, average family living in Los Angeles, California. As we get to know the people, however, unique quirks emerge. Grace's mother prepares Grace a lemon cake for her ninth birthday and when she tastes it, Grace learns of her powers for the first time. The cake is full of depression. Grace can hardly swallow and certainly cannot digest what is happening to her. After visiting school nurses and hospitals for wanting to “remove her lips,” Grace slowly accepts her ability and begins to form a diet full of processed foods in which the makers' feelings are hidden and suppressed by factories.
Grace's brother, Joseph, is a loner who constantly demands his own private space. This demand for privacy only draws Grace closer to her brother as she desperately wants to be part of his life. To Grace;s disappointment, though, the more effort Grace puts into connecting with her brother, the more he disappears from her. A gifted mathematician and potential scientist, he spends most of his free time locked away in room studying physics with his best friend George. George turns out to be the only one who believes Grace and her powers and sets off to study her ability through a set of hilarious experiments. His faith in Grace endures and forms a close bond that Grace cherishes forever.
Grace's father is an aloof man. A dedicated lawyer who keeps rigorous schedules but never brings work home has oddities of his own. He will not enter hospitals. Through births of his children, illnesses and injuries, he always camped outside the hospital and waited eagerly for news to come to him about how his children were. Grace's mother has secrets of her own, at least ones she believes are private until they start coming across her food and into Grace's perceptions. These secrets dominate Grace as she wonders what it could do to her family and her albeit tenuous happiness.
Bender's narratives are compact and vivid. You connect with her characters because they are grounded in a reality that we can all recognize even if her characters are learning about special gifts that seem magical. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a bit of magical realism, quirky characters, and food. Who can deny the last one?