I've been a fan of Bender's modern, slightly magical, slightly eerie writing since The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is no different. This is a lovely, sad, quiet book that takes the trope of superpowers and uses it in an utterly ordinary way to get at the difficulty people have in understanding each other and themselves. Rose is a little girl who learns she can taste a cook's deep-seated emotions in his food, a talent that is borderline unbearable when she notices the despair in her mother's cake. The story follows Rose into adulthood as she very slowly comes to terms with her power, relying on junk food made by machines and taste-testing the area's restaurants in search of a happy chef. What makes the story even more poignant is that she can't use her power to understand the one person she really wants to --her brilliant, troubled brother, drifting slowly away -- because he never makes anything.
I noticed almost immediately a peculiarity about Bender's writing, that she does not use quotation marks or any other form of punctuation to mark dialogue. This creates a queer sense of distance at first, making the reader even feel even farther from the other characters. But this is entirely appropriate for a first-person narrative, since that distance reinforces the idea that we are in Rose's head. The technique is even more appropriate for this story in particular, given that, with the exception of her brother, what Rose wants is nothing more than distance from the people around her -- her troubled mother, the friend wallowing in her depression, the angry baker, the fruit picker with money troubles.
At least two other characters in the book turn out to have similar "powers," but while each of them found a different way to avoid the unwanted talent, Rose, who at first does the same by relying on the aforementioned junk food, eventually comes to accept, and even take charge of, her ability. There are no dramatic revelations or tidy little endings, however; some things cannot be unknown, and some things are unknowable. Rose simply decides to help where she can, and accept what she cannot change. In this sense, the novel is really a coming-of-age story with an unusual spin.