Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

March Book Club: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake April 2, 2013

Thanks for joining our discussion about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ll throw out some topics for discussion, and you can put your comments about these or other topics in the comments section.bender1


Discussion #1: Taste and Emotion

I was intrigued by the connection between taste and emotions. Although I don’t have Rose’s gift for tasting what people are feeling, I do think food can be tightly intertwined with emotion. When I bite into Mom’s cinnamon-swirl French toast, washed down with a sip of her coffee, I taste the nostalgic warmth of countless Sunday brunches around her kitchen table. When I taste my sister Meghan’s cooking, I find myself ready for adventure, my palette eagerly anticipating whatever concoction of spices she has woven into the recipe this time. The taste of a ripe raspberry inevitably transports me to Grandpa’s garden, and I can practically feel the hot desert sun on my back as the memories of childhood summers rush into my mouth.

french toast

What did you think about Rose’s odd talent? What foods evoke specific emotions for you?


Discussion #2: Wacky Family

Rose Edelstein’s family certainly has some dysfunctional relationships—and distinct quirks (a hospital-phobic father; a trapped, immature mother; a hermit-like, genius brother; and Rose herself, whose “special talent” for tasting feelings threatens to drive her to the brink. I read an article that compared the family to the Glass family in J. D. Salinger’s short stories, and that struck me as just about right.

Though not all the characters are necessarily likable, I found them empathetic and well written, not to mention deliciously quirky. What did you think of the characters? Did you have a favorite?


Discussion #3: Do You Buy It?

The story has some fantastical elements to it that ask readers to suspend belief. Rose’s odd talent is revealed early in the story; her brother Joseph’s talent is revealed fairly late in the book, although we are given clues throughout the story that something out of the ordinary is happening. For some reason I was ready to jump on board with Rose’s ability to taste feelings, but the author just didn’t get me to go along with Joseph’s chair-morphing abilities.

How about you? Did you find the characters’ fantastical elements believable? And on a related note, where do you think Joseph goes when he disappears? Does he actually become part of the furniture? Does he time travel? Is he suspended in some kind of spatial limbo?


Discussion #4: Fear of Giftedness

Rose viewed her special talent with alternating panic and annoyance; Joseph kept his odd ability a secret to the world; and their father was so paralyzed by his potential hospital-related gift that he avoided hospitals altogether. Perhaps these characters were worried other people wouldn’t understand, or perhaps they were simply afraid of their own powers. Although the book doesn’t offer much in the way of tidy resolutions, we get the idea that Rose’s moment of redemption comes when she is able to share her gift at the wine-tasting bar after years of keeping it locked away.

Do you (or people you know) keep your greatest talents a secret? What do you think accounts for our tendency to do that?


Discussion #5: Absentee Punctuation

I listened to this book on audio, so I didn’t know until a friend told me that there are no quotation marks used to indicate dialogue! I’m not sure this grammar nerd could have handled that for a whole book.

Did that bother you? Why do you think the author chose to go that route?



I would give this book 3.5 stars. I found the premise intriguing, but the delivery turned out to be darker and more oddball than I prefer. Still, I’m glad I read it.

35 stars

How many stars would you give the book?


{Reminder: I will give away a free book to one randomly selected commenter!}





10 Responses to “March Book Club: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

  1. Jolyn Says:

    This book certainly gave me a lot to think about!

    1. Rose’s talent is odd, but I was able to believe it in fiction. I’m familiar with synesthesia, a blending of the senses that takes many different forms, and it just seemed like a strange case. I have a more common form of synesthesia myself, where I see letters and numbers in consistent colors (and have since I was young, though until I was older I assumed everyone saw those colors when reading/spelling). Some synesthetes see colors, experience smells or tastes with certain words.

    2. I liked the characters and how they were written. I liked them and could relate to her relationship with her father – mine is similarly stoic and quiet. I liked Joseph’s friend (can’t remember his name now) just because he seemed emotionally balanced in contrast.

    3. Just like you, I could believe Rose’s ability, even her grandfather’s and the potential for her father’s talent. But Joseph’s ability seemed out of this world entirely and the author just lost me at that point (I couldn’t believe she even attempted it since it stuck out so much).

    I think Joseph broke himself down (almost molecularly?) to become part of the furniture. Of course, he loses himself and doesn’t remember or feel anything, almost like he ceases to be. And the fact that he’s so dehydrated and starved sick afterward led me to believe he didn’t survive his last attempt. He was just gone too long. But Rose keeps the chair that is him. Also strange.

    4. I think most people learn to appreciate and use their talents to their advantage. I think they’re hidden more often when society finds the talent to be odd or unusual. In Rose’s case, it made everyday life – and eating – quite challenging. I also think she found comfort in Joseph’s friend because he could appreciate her gift, even when she couldn’t.

    5. I’m so sorry you didn’t see this book in print, Steph – I was curious what you’d have to say about the punctuation! It was very strange at first, almost e.e. cummings style. I guess once I got into the unusual storyline, I forgot about it for the most part. But really, what editor was say it would be okay to go without quotes? Honestly, it just seemed a bit lazy on the part of the author.

    Can’t wait to hear what everyone else has to say!

  2. I loved your thoughts, Jolyn! It made me wish we could sit down and chat at the Colonial Parkway place again. 🙂 That was a great connection linking Rose’s gift to synesthesia…I’ve always been a little jealous of your talent! I liked your explanation of what happened to Joseph. Still crazy, but it puts some parameters around it. I honestly don’t know if I could have read the whole book sans quotation marks. I’m sure the author had a reason for it, but it seems a little pretentious to me.

  3. Hi! Thanks for the follow on my blog. What a great blog you have here! I look forward to reading more. 🙂

  4. Nancy Rische Says:

    First off it was a weird book.
    1. I agree with you Stephanie. I used to walk into my mom’s house and be instantly hungry. Food and emotions go hand in hand. I think Rose’s “talent” was believable except that I think it was taken a bit too far. She seemed repulsed by almost all of the emotions that she tasted. From the standpoint of a child I do believe that we have a sense of what is going on in the home without really understaning all of the ramifications.
    2. The family was definately wacky. They were interesting to follow through the book except for Joseph. I think he and his “talent” was too off the wall. My favorite was George. So connected but yet so removed. I did not like the fact that the affair with the Mom continued throughout most of the book without any visible consequences to the family except I think Rose said she was even glad that her Mom was involved.
    3. I did buy it especially when it came out about the grandfather’s smelling “talent” and explained her dad’s “fear” of hospitals. Again it did go a bit far when Joseph turned into a chair. I still don’t get the connection to the other gifts.
    4. I think as a general rule we as people like to fit in. That makes it hard to reveal our talents until we get some positive strokes about them. I think at a young age we even believe that other peoples (and families) are like ours and we do not realize that not everyone acts and feels like we do. As we grow and mature we become more aware of the family and individual characteristics that are unique and become proud of them or try to hide them from others.
    5. Finally it did really bother me, especially at first, that there were no quotation marks. I often had to reread a section to see who was talking and when she was just relaying infomation. Nathan said he knew of others who used that style. He thought it was in “vogue” now.
    While I am really glad that I read it and it definately “hooked” me I would only give it 2 !/2 stars. I would recommend it for another book club but not for pleasure reading.
    Note Jolyn how fun to see colors in numbers and letters. I would love that especially if I could see numbers in colors, (I am an accountant and I LOVE numbers.)

    • Great thoughts, Nancy! I liked George too. He validated Rose’s experiences and didn’t dismiss what was happening to her. (And he seemed refreshingly normal!) I loved your insight: “I do believe that we have a sense of what is going on in the home without really understaning all of the ramifications.” So true! Thanks for participating.

  5. 1. I definitely thought Rose’s talent was odd, but I kinda-sort bought into it. Certain smells such as Thanksgiving dinner cooking remind me of my mom’s house. 🙂
    2. I really liked the characters. I thought they were multi-layered and interesting. I liked how the author developed them. While they were quirky, they were believable. Except maybe for their hidden talents.
    3. Joseph’s odd “ability” really confused me. I read and re-read certain sections. It was intriguing and interesting, but in the end left me feeling unresolved. I guess he became one with the furniture, but I didn’t understand the part where he came back and didn’t come back and came back again. It was hard to follow the ins and outs.
    4. I think if one’s gift is practical or well-received, it is usually shared openly. But when it is something odd or hard to believe/prove, folks are more likely to be hesitant about making it known to the world.
    5. Lack of quotation marks drove me nuts in the beginning, but it did get easier. There were certain parts where it was hard to tell if something was being said or thought. I would love to ask the author why that was done!
    Rating: Like you, I would give the book 3.5 stars. It didn’t wrap up nicely, but certain elements — such as when Rose when to check on her brother — kept me spellbound.

    Thanks for hosting, Stephanie!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lu! It’s nice to be in a book group with you again. 🙂 I’m glad to hear I wasn’t alone in feeling lost about Joseph’s gift. I kept thinking I’d missed something! Great point about it being hard to share unusual gifts…it’s easy to let the world see the ones that people “get.” Spellbound…great word for this novel!

  6. nate Says:

    I’m super-late to the game, but I’m going to comment anyways. I’m not going to answer your discussion questions, though, because I’m a rebel like that.

    Thoughts from nate…

    This was an overwhelmingly depressing book. there just seemed no happiness anywhere, but then again the title does introduce us to a particular sadness…there was definitely a section, probably about the third quarter of the book, that I got off the train from reading and just felt blah!

    Anyone else notice the naming conventions? All of the women have more unusual names (Rose, Saddee, Lane), but all of the men have very plain, boring names (George, Joseph) and her father is never even given a name (at least that I noticed).

    Did the writer ever decide what sort of story she was telling? Is it a mystery novel? a fairy tale? a coming-of-age story?

    The mom character, Lane, was so wacky I never felt like she really developed into the story, rather than a prop or element to move the story forwards. She reminded me a lot of Bernadette (from her own namesake book).

    I felt much the same with joseph; he wasn’t well developed. I guess I don’t even want to stop that with Joseph, there are so many things that aren’t really developed. What is the point of the grandmother character? The author toys with us by showing us secret conversations between her and Joseph, but what of it? She broke the candlestick rule! (if you talk about a candlestick in chapter 2, you better bring it back up in chapter 10!)

    I lied, I am going to talk about one of your questions. The quotation mark thing? I’m indifferent to it. One of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, has been using that style for years and it’s starting to become “post-modern-literature-cool.” It does provide a slightly detached feel to the narrative, which supports the surreal atmosphere I guess. I’d be curious to know the author’s thought and decision process on it. Or maybe it was an editorial suggestion? Who knows.

    All-in-all, I think the author is an excellent writer. She does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of the story, but the story suffered from schizophrenia. It never knew what type of story it was, or what it was about, so it dabbled in a lot of little things, never developed any of them fully, and didn’t provide a very satisfying or effective conclusion. I wish she had picked a direction, worked more directly towards it, and took a little more time to wrap it up. The book was a spot too short.

    I guess it reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Which, if you talk to most sci-fi or fantasy fans, would think is a compliment. Unfortunately, i think he’s by far the most over-rated writer in fiction today.

  7. nate Says:

    Did I mention that a great deal of the premise behind this story was lifted (borrowed? stolen? coincidence?) from one of my favorite movies: Simply Irresistible. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it’s a pretty awful movie. a 1999 romantic comedy staring Sarah Michelle Gellar (aka Buffy the vampire slayer, and the reason I ever saw the movie) and Sean Patrick Flanery. it’s the story of a young chef who imbues her cooking with her own emotions. It really isn’t a very good movie. I love it, for reasons I never understood. I think when I watch it, I see the movie that the screenwriter wanted to write, wanted to make, but they just weren’t good enough (or the movie studios mucked things about too much). I think sister Liz may be the only other person on the planet who saw the movie, and I think she liked it ok herself. We had a discussion about it once, and she talked about the enchantment that runs through the movie. She made me think twice about the perceived cause, and showed a layer I’d never thought about before.

    I love it, but, yeah, really, if you do decide to see it, I expect you’ll think it’s a pretty bad movie.

    • Ooh, great thoughts, Nate! I can always count on you for a thought-provoking literary analysis. And hey, you can come up with your own discussion topics anytime. 🙂 I so agree with your synopsis: “The story suffered from schizophrenia.” That really nails my biggest complaint about the book. Well said. Intriguing about the movie connection too…I think this might call for another family movie discussion!

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