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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

On Monday the gang got together for another excellent book discussion.  This time we talked about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. This novel is a work of magical realism.  It is a quiet but utterly compelling family drama with a very prominent magical element that adds tension to the story. 

Here is the publishers plot summary via Reading Group Guides:
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, 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 cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother --- - her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother --- - tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden --- - her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

Oh and before I begin, I have to give credit to one of the ladies in our group, Stella, who baked the titular cake for us.  Yum!

This book was a hit for discussing.  Even those who said it was "weird" still loved reading it.  I thought I might have trouble getting this slightly older group on board, but I was totally wrong.  These mature women surprised me both in their enthusiasm for the book and their comments.  I literally had to stop the group and make a few of them repeat what they had said so I could get it down.  I had such a good experience leading them on this book that I will probably make it the Fall 1012 book discussion title for my students.

Now on to our truly amazing discussion.
  • We opened with the regular poll.  11 liked the book, 2 disliked, and 2 so-so.  The dislikes were because of  both the magical realism and they were also upset with how dysfunction the family truly was
  • A few of the opening liked comments were:
    • I kept wanting to read it to see what would happen to Rose. I stayed up way too late to finish it.
    • This was one of the most provocative books I have ever read.  It raised so many "what if?" questions.
    • I liked the writing.
    • I liked how well she described the brother-sister relationship.  It felt very real.
    • I was unsettled the entire time (in a good way).
  • We talked a lot about Rose. One participant summed up Rose by saying she was an intermediary or interpreter for the family-- their connection to the "normal" world.  She ends up the most functional of the group, even though her gift is overwhelming to her for many years. We were awed by her strength and perseverance despite zero guidance or help from her family.  She not only found a way to be able to eat despite the pain it would cause her, but also, she learned to embrace her gift and find a way to use it to better her life.  We re-read the last lines of the novel where she clearly says she is using her gift to be a part of the world; as opposed to her brother who uses it to escape the world.  Even though the ending in relation to Rose's future is left open, these lines make it clear that Rose will be successful as a chef in the years to come.
  • Speaking of her brother, Joseph.  Obviously we had a lot to talk about in relation to him.  I will not spoil it for those of you who haven't read the novel because what happens to him is shocking and confusing, but I will say, Joseph's gift is that he can disappear. He is socially awkward and spends all of his time studying.  Eventually he chooses to use his gift to leave the real world forever.  How he disappears is a bit odd, but as one participant pointed out we only get Rose's explanation.  How do we know that is the correct one?  Was his disappearance so traumatic to her that she creates an out of the world reason as a coping mechanism? Could be.  Another person pointed out that somewhere in the novel we hear from Joseph's only friend that Joseph is working on "creating perceptions in people."  Maybe he did not disappear but got so good at altering people's perceptions that they think he is gone.  Or, what Rose says happened really did.  We didn't know! This part of the novel led to many different discussion points.  In the end when I specifically asked them if they thought Rose's explanation was the one the author meant us to believe 100%, only one person said yes.  We talked about how it doesn't matter what happened to him, only that he is gone. Wow, that was a hard part of the discussion to get through explaining without giving away a MAJOR spoiler.
    • Another sub-point here: someone said how Joseph finally disappearing for good is what eventually set Rose free.  She needed him to go in order for her to be able to move forward herself.  She could now focus on learning to join the world.
  • Let's keep it with the family.  The Dad eventually bonds with Rose and tells her that the people in their family all have something special they can do.  His father could smell death on people.  Rose with the food and Joseph with the disappearing/perceptions thing.  For his entire life Rose's father has gone out of his way to be normal and average so as not to learn what his gift is.  He is very boring and normal though; so much so that it is as if he is not living his life.  He is merely existing.  He does have a huge phobia for going into hospitals though since he suspects he may find his gift inside one.
  • The mom could have had her own book.
    • One person liked the mom because in her own way she handled her kids the best she could.  She doted on Joseph, but he was needier, probably autistic, and needed her more. Rose was the "normal" kid.
    • She described Joseph as a geode; which we discussed probably referred to how boring he look on the outside, but how special he was once you cracked his shell.  While she called Rose sea glass.  We found this perceptive.  Sea glass looks smooth and pretty but it needs to go through a lot of turmoil to get to that point. 
    • The mom always looked for unintended guidance and when she found out at her wedding that what she thought was fate on her first date with husband was all planned by him, she was never able to connect with him again.
    • One person called the mom a self-centered black hole, although the rest of us thought that was too harsh.  She had trouble finding her way in the world, but it appears once she found furniture making and her new love, Larry, she found herself.
    • Speaking of the carpentry, one person astutely pointed out that while the mom found her happiness in her wood working making furniture by hand, the brother's disappearance is linked to a cold metal chair that the mom hates. Hmmmmmmm. We liked that touch.
  • We of course talked about George, Joseph's only friend and Rose's crush.  There was a lot to say about him, but one point in particular we thought was interesting.  Early in the book Joseph is trying to draw a perfect circle, which by definition is impossible.  He would crumple up his mistakes, but George would ask him not to.  George was making wall paper out of "mistakes." This not only highlighted the differences between the 2 boys, but it also foreshadowed Joseph's future.  As one participant said, attaining perfection means stagnation; and for all intensive purposes, stagnation is what Joseph's future holds, while looking for imperfection  means  you are always open to change.  George led a full and vibrant life.  Rose, falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, may be because those two young men were her biggest influences.
 There was so much more, but this gives you a taste.  I will end with a list of the words the participants threw out when I asked for a word or phrase to describe the book:

  • First, one participant noted that the book is broken up into 4 sections, each with a one word title that clearly shows the progression on Rose's story.  In fact, it reads as a very brief summary of the entire novel. So here is a writer who did the work for us. Those words are:
    • Food
    • Joseph
    • Nightfall
    • Here
  • Other words people shared:
    • growth
    • weird, weird, weird (she wanted it 3x)
    • resillent
    • provcative
    • challenging
    • psychological
    • original
    • metaphysical
    • magical
    • layered
    • family secrets
    • dysfuntction
    • innovative
    • lyrical
    • emotional
    • "normal"
Readalikes:  There are a few authors who write magical realism like Bender; stories which are also character centered, explore families and/or relationships between people but have a magical element that cannot be ignored.  Following I will suggest some authors who also write this way.  These authors are also known for their original and lyrical writing.  If I have written about the author here on RA for All the link will lead you there.
When I was reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake it also reminded me of Away by Amy Bloom, Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday WorldKafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obhret, all for different reasons.

For a little edgier magical realism try Kelly Link.

Also, like everyone else in the world, I will suggest Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Equivel, the other famous book about someone who can taste people's emotions in food, but quite honestly, that is the only trait these two books share. Unless the food connection was your main reason for liking this novel, I would try something else.

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