The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Weirdly beautiful words from Bender, who is a helluva writer. Rose Edelstein is the narrator, navigating us through her years as a nine year old who finds her mother’s lemon cake tastes…. hollow. This begins a lifetime of sensitivity to the personalities of the people cooking for her, she can taste their angst, their rushedness, their anger, their sadness. She is unable to bear it, picking out the exact origin of the hen who lay the egg, the personality type of the man who picked the parsley (jerk). Too many sensations showering down on her three times a day. She finds refuge in processed foods, clutching her bag of oreos as a savior, finding little to criticize except the very factory-ness of such food. Her mother’s food shifts dramatically when she is 12, and Rose knows her mother has found someone else, Larry, the director of the co-op where her mom has been working for a few years.
Rose’s brother Joseph also manifests strange talents, becoming more and more distant and frequently disappearing. After rejection from Caltech, he moves out and attends the local college but refuses a roommate since he would only have been able to stomach living with his friend George. Rose has a serious crush on George, calls him up at Caltech and volunteers to do his laundry, she has the car for a day, she can run errands or whatever he needs. Later that day, she has to call George again because she has just seen Joseph disappear, sitting in the folding chair she noticed that he had become the chair.
Bender demonstrates the awkwardness of bonding between father and daughter, only over medical dramas on TV, although her father is petrified of setting foot inside a hospital. We discover at the end that he believes he may have some rare talent inside a hospital, which is why he refuses to go in. His father had the ability to smell people’s personalities, and Rose can taste them in the food they make, and Joseph simply becomes things.
In the end, Rose begins to use her talents at the restaurant where she went the night Joseph disappeared, where she had a French onion soup so perfect and divine that is restored her hope for food.