The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a popular success, most likely because of its attractive premise and unique voice. However, critical reactions to the work are decidedly mixed. Even those critics who enjoy the book point out at least a few weaknesses in its structure and development.
The premise is the largest point of contention among the critics. Joseph Arellano of the New York Journal of Books calls it “charming and unique.” Ariel Gonzalez of the Miami Herald notes that Lemon Cake’s premise is similar to that of Like Water for Chocolate, but she is nevertheless positive about it:
Bender has guts. She doesn’t mind opening herself up to a charge of derivativeness. Her characters and the language that vivifies them make the risk worthwhile.
However, a few critics are less charitable. Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times dismisses the book entirely, saying that it is an example of “foodie-ism...seeping into so-called literary novels.”
Nearly all the critics feel that the plot weakens in the second half of the novel. Ariel Gonzalez believes this is because Bender shifts the focus. She seems unwilling to commit to a single protagonist in the second half of the story, where she maintains Rose’s first-person point of view but focuses the concern largely on Joseph’s choices and actions. This is probably part of the reason that, as Gonzalez observes, Rose “is less compelling as a young adult.” As Joseph’s story reveals itself, Rose does not do anything to push the story forward. Bender’s ambivalence of focus inevitably translates to the reader.
Other critics suggest that the second half of the novel is weak because Bender made a mistake in choosing the novel form. Joseph Arellano writes:
After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down. It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.
He points to Bender’s history as a successful short story writer and suggests that this story would have worked better in a shorter form.
Critical reaction to the thematic elements of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is again uneven. Some critics feel that while Bender makes an honest treatment of emotions, she goes too far with the exposition and metaphor. According to Anne Scott of The Guardian, Bender’s metaphorical treatment of Rose’s loss of innocence is “slightly laboured.” Jane Ciabattari of National Public Radio is more enthusiastic. She says the novel compares to J. D. Salinger stories like The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey in its “alertness to hypocrisies” and “detestation of...phoniness.”
Most critics ultimately react positively to the optimistic nature of Bender’s ending. Ariel Gonzales writes:
While acknowledging the dark, she maintains an exuberant, life-affirming attitude. She understands that the heart needs feeding too.