The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake begins just before Rose Edelstein’s ninth birthday. She eats a cake her mother baked and tastes a hollow sadness inside it. Her mother denies that she is sad, but Rose knows somehow that what she tastes is true. During the following days, she discovers that she can taste the emotions of the cook in every food she eats—and she hates it.
Rose’s mother, Lane, is a drifting dreamer who has never decided what she wants to do with her life. She does not understand what could be wrong with the food she cooks. Whenever Rose complains, Lane thinks she must be making mistakes with the recipes. Rose’s father, a competent and seemingly uncomplicated lawyer, seems oblivious to any problem. Her brother, Joseph, dismisses Rose’s complaints by saying she is nuts. Joseph is a science nerd who has difficulty relating to other people. Rose desperately wants the attention and love that Joseph rarely seems able to give.
The only person who takes Rose’s complaints about food seriously is George Malcolm, Joseph’s best friend. George is also a science nerd, but he treats Rose with tender attentiveness. She idolizes him for this. George treats Rose’s condition as a scientific problem and sets up a series of experiments to determine the extent of her powers. He takes her to a bakery, where she eats an angry cookie. George questions the baker and learns that the man is indeed angry, although he says he feels normal. The baker lets Rose taste a sandwich his girlfriend made, and Rose says it is “yelling at me to love it.” The baker thinks this is strange, but he admits that he does not exactly love his girlfriend the way she probably wants him to.
On the way home, Rose and George compare notes and determine that she is most able to detect the emotions cooks do not understand in themselves. Baked goods transmit emotions most strongly, whereas foods that are merely chopped or sliced carry less emotion. Anyone who has touched the food, including farmers and factory workers, leaves at least a vague emotional print. George seems to think of Rose’s problem as a positive ability, and he says she might “grow into it” over time.
Rose does not want to grow into her new sense of taste; she wants to get rid of it. One day after eating a bite of her mother’s pie, she collapses, clawing at her mouth. Lane feels so scared she takes Rose to the emergency room, where Rose demands to have her mouth removed. After she calms down, she realizes that nobody can help her and that complaining about her strange ability only makes people think she is crazy. From then on, she pretends she is fine. On the way home, Lane asks Rose not to worry so much about adult problems.
For the next several years, Rose copes with the burden of her tasting ability by eating as much processed, factory-produced food as possible. When she must eat homemade food, she does her best to focus on its faraway qualities, and she learns to distinguish between the farms and regions that produce the various ingredients. Yet the sense of her mother’s emotions dominates. At twelve, Rose takes a bite of roast beef one day and feels “such a wallop of guilt and romance” that she knows Lane is having an affair. In some ways, this is an improvement; in spite of the guilt, Lane tastes happier.
After learning about her mother’s affair, Rose seeks a greater connection with her father, Paul. They do little together besides watch TV, so Rose tries to press him into conversation while they watch. One day she asks if he has any “special skill,” and he claims he does not. He has such a fear of hospitals that he has never entered one, not even when Rose and Joseph were born. When Rose asks about this, Paul admits that he probably would not visit a hospital even to visit her if she were struck with a terrible illness.
Whenever Rose’s parents spend an evening away from home, Joseph babysits. While Lane and Paul are gone, he sometimes disappears, and Rose cannot figure out where he goes. He always reappears suddenly looking old and tired. Rose mentions this to her mother, but...
(The entire section is 1675 words.)