Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1675
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 nobody does anything about it. Then on the day of Joseph’s graduation from high school, he disappears for several minutes while the rest of the family is home. Once again, he returns quite suddenly, looking worn out. He refuses to explain where he went while he was gone.
Although he is brilliant, Joseph ends up getting rejected by most colleges. He enrolls at a local school and begs his parents to allow him to move into an apartment alone. They agree on the condition that he calls every afternoon to let them know he is okay. He complies with this for years, but one day he fails to call. Lane drives over several times to check on him. Two days later she finds him, dehydrated and weak, lying facedown on his living room floor.
The next time Joseph disappears, Lane is away on a work trip. She cannot get Joseph to answer his phone, so she calls Rose and asks her to go check on him. Rose is now a senior in high school. She drives to Joseph’s apartment and finds his bed on the balcony. Joseph does not answer the door, but she lets herself in and finds him sitting in his bedroom. He begs her to leave, but she senses that something is wrong and refuses to go. Eventually she realizes that he is somehow transforming himself into his chair. His legs and the chair’s legs meet and combine in a way she can hardly understand. Rose grows agitated and steps out to call for help. When she returns to the room, Joseph is gone.
Although George has long since left for college, Rose is still infatuated with him. He is also the only person she really trusts. She calls him first, begging him to come and help her. He and her father both come, but Rose is unable to explain exactly what happened. Her father seems not to want to know and satisfies himself with a weak story that Joseph, for some reason, jumped out the window and ran away. George tries harder to understand and believes that Joseph somehow turned into his chair, although Rose cannot say why or how. Before leaving, George and Rose kiss.
After this experience, Rose cooks a meal by herself for the first time. Her parents say her pasta is wonderful, but when she tastes it, her emotions appall her. Among her complex feelings, she tastes sadness, a desire to return to her eight-year-old self, and a coldness she associates with factories. She does not like that this coldness is a part of her, and she tentatively begins working to change it.
Rose does not go to college. She stays home and works in an office, using most of her earnings to buy food at restaurants and learn about the people who make it. She finds one restaurant where the food tastes like food; the cook seems mostly concerned with making the ingredients taste good. Rose returns again and again, and eventually she obtains permission to work as a weekend dishwasher.
George calls occasionally for years, but one day Rose tells him she is not ready for a relationship with him. Eventually he gets married, and Rose attends the wedding. Her parents’ relationship mellows, and her mother takes to sleeping in Joseph’s room, presumably leaving often through his side door to sleep with her lover instead. One night Rose is surprised to see Paul, who does not usually dwell on the past, sitting up late looking at a photo album. In one of the photos, she notices an odd cloth tied to her grandfather’s face, and Paul explains that his father wore it to protect himself. He was able to smell people’s emotions, and it was so painful that he had to block his sense of smell most of the time.
Paul seems surprised that Rose never knew about his father’s skill before. When she reveals that she has a similar skill, Paul believes her immediately. He tells says he has a hunch that he has a similar skill, and that he would find out what it was if he went into a hospital. Rose tries to press him for details, but he cannot give them. He knows somehow that his skill, whatever it is, would be too much to bear. Rose suddenly realizes that Joseph’s transforming skill may have been impossible for him to bear, too.
Tentatively, over time, Rose stops trying to avoid her own skill as a “food psychic.” Instead she begins using it to help people. She uses her insights about ingredients to help the owners of the restaurant where she works. She also helps a woman who works with teens by tasting baked goods the teens cook and providing insight on their emotions.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake ends with Rose’s description of an encounter with Joseph the last time he reappears after his disappearance. He is weak and dehydrated, so he spends time in the hospital. Rose visits him there, and he explains that he finds it easy to be furniture but hard to be human. She asks him to disappear only into one chair in the future, a chair she has marked with a pen. He says he understands, and he agrees. Afterward, Rose realizes that his need to retreat is similar to her own need to hide from other people’s pain by eating factory-produced food. She wonders:
Was it so different than the choice of a card-table chair, except my choice meant I could stay in the world and his didn’t?