On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden.
...high-hearted and soulful ... In this novel, she weaves elaborate surreal elements...into a realistic narrative, replete with descriptions of Los Angeles weather patterns, the textures of vending-machine food and the byproducts of Rose's mother's study of woodworking ... Rose's nuanced responses to food mirror the emotional intensity of growing up in a Los Angeles family with its share of troublesome quirks ... Bender convinces us effortlessly that by the time Rose is a high school graduate, she can tell the terroir of the ingredients in food she eats ... And she concludes this virtuoso performance with a flourish by showing us a surprising yet somehow inevitable future, where Rose's particular gift brings its own rewards.
For those willing to experiment a little, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake doesn’t tread even remotely on the same emotional territory as Like Water For Chocolate (another book that combined food, magic, and a really unhappy cook) ... Bender doesn’t go in for florid flourishes or passionate writing; her territory is the unspoken unhappiness of a 20th-century, middle-class family ... Her 1980s California world is a very recognizable one of suburbs, buses, and overworked school nurses. If anything, Bender does less with food than one would expect of a novel whose main character’s emotional world is bound up in the sense of taste ... There’s an evocative power in Bender’s work that lingers with a reader.
Bender is the master of quiet hysteria. At times, it seems almost cruel, like she uses her talent to create anxiety willfully. She builds pressure sentence by sentence ... Bender has inherited at least three profound strains, three genetic codes or lines of inquiry from her forebears in American literature. There’s the Faulknerian loneliness, the isolation that comes from our utter inability, as human beings, to truly communicate with each other; the crippling power of empathy (how to move forward when everyone around you is in pain) that is so common in our literature it’s hard to attach a name to it, and the distance created by humor, a willfully devil-may-care attitude that allowed, for example, Mark Twain to skip with seeming abandon around serious issues like racism and poverty ... Void of sentiment and high drama, bleached clean of mystery and even metaphor, it’s about daily life that is increasingly impossible to navigate yet moving always forward.