Essay On The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake And Roses Reaction

In the 2010 novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, young Rose finds herself feeling the emotions of the people who make her food – with every bite, she can understand the state of mind that the baker or cook experiences while they are making the food. However, this little girl does not see this unique gift to be a blessing; instead, it is a complete and utter curse, where she simply cannot escape the unhappiness of the people who make her food for her. While some could argue that there are positive emotions that she feels throughout her experiences in the book, even the act itself of feeling these emotions through food feels disgusting and invasive to her, leaving the gift entirely unwanted and unappreciated by Rose. Rose’s sadness is palpable throughout the novel, as she continually encounters a world of sadness and cynicism that no one means to give her, and she knows she is too young to experience.

The first scene of the novel truly establishes Rose’s unhappiness with her newfound ability, as the first time she experiences her power makes her understand everything that went into the making of the food. In preparation for her birthday, Rose’s mother makes her a birthday cake – the titular lemon cake – and tests out this practice run on Rose herself. When Rose tastes it, however, she tastes a lot more than lemon and flour and sugar – she also experiences the loneliness that her mother feels, the empty void that she experiences every day in a deep swell of despair. “None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it” (Bender, p. 10). This first taste (both literal and metaphorical) of the existential sadness that lies at the heart of American family life is what makes Rose saddened by her gift. Her mother is faking her own happiness through the making of the cake, but Rose knows that her heart simply is not in it.

Of course, there are many more emotions that Rose feels besides sheer terror and suburban ennui. Eventually, Rose tastes that one of her mother’s dishes – roast beef – was prepared with wild attraction and illicit secrets. She realizes at that point that her mother is having an affair. “I was twelve when I sat down to a family dinner of roast beef and potatoes, on a cool February evening, and got such a wallop of guilt and romance in my first mouthful that I knew, instantly, that she’d met someone else. Thick waves of it, in the meat and the homemade sour cream and the green slashes of carefully chopped chives” (Bender, p. 92). This power opens up Rose’s mind even to the concept of an affair – she is too young to realistically or practically know what that is, but her power robs her of her innocence in that way. She is opened up to ideas and concepts that are far too adult for someone so impressionable to reasonably absorb. The very concept of an affair is foreign to Rose, and yet she knows about it, even to the point where she talks to her mother’s paramour and lays down some ground rules. Even as she does this, it is apparent that this knowledge about her mother is crushing Rose; she never looks at her mother the same way again, all while not really knowing how to process her feelings about her.

This unhappiness and blindness extends to Rose’s father, as well; despite the apparent and evident rifts in their family structure, the father is completely ignorant to these developments. Instead, he deludes himself into thinking he has a good family, blinding himself to the problems he should rightly want to fix. According to Rose, “the world had matched what he’d dreamed up, and he settled himself inside what they’d made” (Bender, p. 21). The father is the quintessential hard-working American suburban dad – always pretending that work and home are separate, but doing most of his work at home. To that end, he is so desperate to pretend that everything is normal that he almost willingly ignores the glaring signs that his perfect American family is torn asunder. At his son Joseph’s disappearances and goings-on, he chalks them up to “the private explorations of a twenty-two-year-old young man,” and after he is taken to the hospital, he does not visit, but merely ensures “the best of care” by sending flowers to the nurses (Bender, p. 165). These things are the succinct, throwaway statements her father makes in order to absolve himself of the need to deal with his familial situation – he merely insists that everything is fine, and will continue to be without his involvement.

Rose, throughout the book, is profoundly affected by this ability, being crippled by her ability to feel for those for whom she tastes their feelings. Rose is uniquely unable to escape the mindsets and difficulties of others; Rose has to eat, and those who feed her always project what they feel onto the food for Rose to consume and be affected by. To that end, Rose actually starts to alter her own dietary habits in order to minimize the pain she feels from her servers and cooks, as well as the ingredients that were used to make these dishes. She starts raiding the vending machines, she starts looking forward to the solid sadness of the cafeteria lunch lady’s food, and she even tries taking food out from her mouth when it becomes too unpleasant. The whole affair becomes a complete curse to Rose; every emotion she feels from the person without their knowing it feels like spying – “I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early” (Bender, p. 117). At the tender age of twelve, she already understands the fundamental unhappiness of those around her, which they are unable to communicate through normal conversation or behavior. The little things people do to escape their lives crushes her emotionally, leaving her to turn to processed foods and disconnecting herself from the human experience of cooking as much as possible. For someone as emotional as Rose, being forced to endure these deeply-felt intentions and anxieties from others by the simple act of eating is nearly unbearable.

There are those who could argue that Rose’s abilities do not just bring her sadness; there are moments throughout the book where the food that she experiences comes from skilled hands, loving cooks, and carefully prepared ingredients. One of her happiest meals is a simple turkey sandwich that she eats during school – “The whole thing was just a sonata of love–the lettuce leaf, the organic tomato grown on a happy farm, even the factory mayonnaise took on such delicacy of feeling it seemed like an exquisite violin solo” (Bender, p. 58). The fact that this very simple, ordinary sandwich brings her happiness shows the contrast between complexity of preparedness and overall result of food – often the simplest foods are what makes us happy. There are also fleeting moments when she encounters other foods that provide a simple positive experience for her. Also, sometimes she does relish the few times she is able to open up with her secret to others, namely George and Sherrie. Those around her who know about her gift seem to pay more attention to her, and that is often welcomed. With this in mind, if many of us were in her position we would love to have this unique perspective on how our food was made.

The problem with this perspective, however, is that these moments of happiness are momentary, and in no way indicative of her overall feelings toward the gift. Rose, in the end, absolutely hates her gift; for one thing, it makes her grow up much faster than she wants to. Between eight and twelve years of age, Rose turns from a kind, excitable young girl to a nervous wreck who knows more about her parents’ marriage than she does. Her emotions have become slave to the food that she eats, and she has to carefully pick and choose what she eats to minimize the damage it does to her emotional state. “Baked goods were the most potent, having been built for the longest time from the smallest of parts, so I did best with a combination of the highly processed–gummy fish, peanut-butter crackers, potato chips–made by no one, plus occasional fast-food burgers, compiled by machines and made, often, by no one, and fruits and vegetables that hadn’t been cooked” (Bender, p. 69). The food itself drives her to push herself away from the one thing that her mother can use to convey her affection for Rose – the food. “Day in and day out, I had been faking enjoying eating at home, through the weekly gaps and silences between my parents, through my mother’s bright and sleepless eyes, and for whatever reason, for that one time, I could not possibly pretend I liked her pie” (Bender, p. 75). This leads her to an existence that is far too cynical, arriving far too soon in life for such an impressionable, “needy” young girl.

In conclusion, the experience of feeling the thoughts and emotions of those who make and prepare her food leaves Rose feeling existentially drained and makes her grow up far too quickly. While there are moments when she finds food that has been prepared by happy people, with love, more often than not she hates the fact that she even knows about these things. She feels like an invader in other people’s most deeply-held convictions and emotions, and she just cannot take it for very long. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a uniquely dark look at the impressionable nature of youth, the decline of the American Dream, and a parable about the pieces of ourselves we put into our cooking. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Rose’s experiences feeling everyone else’s dissatisfaction at their own lives completely undo her and unsettle her sense of safety and comfort in an increasingly hazardous and desperate world.

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