The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: Conclusion

August 19, 2010 | By | Comments (2)

Hello, bookies. The time has come to discuss Parts Three and Four of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Some of you pointed out that Part One and Part Two felt disconnected from one another.  In the remainder of the book, the author marries the two earlier parts and ties up a lot of loose ends.  While still leaving the character of Joseph a bit ambiguous!  How maddening!  Happily, author Aimee Bender has said she'll answer our questions.  So, by August 26th–a week from now–please send in your questions by commenting below.  

Poor Rose is the one begged by her mother (off on a "week-long trip with the co-op") to go check on her brother Joseph.  Thus Rose is the one who finds herself in the unenviable position of having lost him on her watch. Ten seconds earlier, he had been "there."  Then he disappeared.  Good, sweet George is the only one she can call to come rescue her. He doesn't shirk from trying to help her figure out what happened, as Rose's father ultimately does.  George is indeed the metaphoric road to follow. He cares for her. He gets her. He is with her the night she first visits the French cafe (which turns out to be her oasis and salvation).  He is the one who later suggests that she work as a food taster vs. washing dishes in order to take advantage of her special talent.  Plus, let's not forget that kiss.  I was happy for Rose, weren't you? She certainly waited for years to fulfill her childhood crush, if only for that one time.  There's a strong sense of nostalgia: "…We stepped into the street and George grabbed my hand and the ghosts of our younger selves crossed with us.")

We finally learn more about Rose's father.  How amazing that his father–Rose's grandfather–also had a special skill.  Just as the grandfather could infer hidden emotions from the way people or places smelled, Rose could do it by tasting their food.  Rose's father told her he himself had a "hunch" that he could do something in a hospital. Yet he won't find out. He won't go in.  I hesitate to use this word and yet it is the only one that captures how I felt–I found it pathetic that he couldn't bring himself to enter the hospital in order to see his son in intensive care.  Years later, after going for his midnight runs, he returns to the house with red eyes, wiping his face (and his emotions away) before putting his mask back on and entering his house.  I can only infer from this touching image that he was devastated by the disappearance of his son but that he thinks he cannot acknowledge this to others, not even to his family.  A crucial connection is spelled out by the author when she writes, "My father still seemed shockingly unaware of anything that was going on, but based on what I'd tasted, it had occurred to me that inside my mother was some kind of tiny hospital, and my father drove around that one as vigilantly as he drove around the big ones laid out on the map of the city."

There are some interesting role reversals once Joseph has disappeared.  It is as if Rose takes on more of the parental role. She starts cooking for her mother and father.  When she later leaves the house to put her things in the cafe's closet, she honks the horn once for her father as he did for so many years to wake her.  In a way, she becomes the protector of the family's history as well as the physical stand-in for her brother.  It is no accident that the numbers she chooses for her closet's combination lock are nine, twelve, seventeen, corresponding to the heightened years in her life.  And it is no accident that the belongings she chooses to safeguard include "Grandma's teak box of ashes…A velvet and wicker stool that I did not want to see re-upholstered…In the corner, a folding chair."

The chair, the chair.

"In a voice so quiet I had to put my ear right up close to his mouth, so quiet I could hardly hold on to the words, he whispered to me that the chair was his favorite, was the easiest to sustain. That at other times, he had been the bed, the dresser, the table, the nightstand." From Rose's questions and Joseph's answers, we learn that he doesn't know while he's "away," that he doesn't feel the passage of time, that it's good while he's away but "terribly hard" when he returns. "His skin was still heavy, like it had been before, like more hours had pressed into his face than made sense, like he was a living version of the relativity split between the clock on earth and the one in space." I remain confused about Joseph but it does seem that he is caught in between two worlds, which is echoed in the section title, "Here."  Here versus There.  (Where?!)

It's heartwarming that our heroine Rose is able to turn her curse into an asset in the end.  The equivalent of a steaming bowl of French onion soup on a cold winter day. I found myself silently cheering her on as she proposed a food tasting and then shocked and impressed Monsieur and Madame with her sophisticated palette and psychological powers of observation.  Thank heavens she found a way to live in the world with her dichotomous talent and curse.

Sadly, Joseph was not so lucky.

This to me is the crucial excerpt of the entire book (and reader Heather had cited this in an earlier comment):

"And just as he said it, like a bird across the sky, my brother flickered through my mind, and although the thought was half formed, it occurred to me that meals were still meals, food still contained with a set beginning and end, and I could pick and choose what I could eat and what I couldn't.  And that my father's was a hospital he could drive around entirely, and Grandpa seemed to smell mostly in stores, but what if whatever Joseph had felt every day had no shape like that? Had no way to be avoided or modified?  Was constant?"

I'm eager to hear more from author Aimee Bender and I'll start off our round of questioning with this prosaic yet perplexing question: "Where" does Joseph go?  Does he engage in some sort of time travel experiment as readers Caitlin and Miriam had speculated?  And why does he feel such a compelling drive to be "alone" and "away?"