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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake Reader’s Guide

By Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender


The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Aimee Bender’s lush and moving new novel, A The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.


On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s  privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Rose goes through life feeling people’s emotions through their food.  Many eat to feel happy and comforted.  Does this extreme sensory experience bring any happiness to Rose or only sadness? 

2. What does Rose mean when she says her dad always seemed like a guest to her? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?

3. “Mom’s smiles were so full of feeling that people leaned back a little when she greeted them. It was hard to know just how much was being offered.”  What does Rose mean and how does this trait affect her mother’s relationships?

4. Why do you think Rose’s dad liked medical dramas but hated hospitals?

5. Rose says, “Mom loved my brother more.  Not that she didn’t love me— I felt the wash of her love everyday, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water.  I was her darling daughter; Joseph was her it.”  Do you think Rose is right in her estimation and why do you think her mother might feel this way?

6. What does the grandmother suggest when she tells Rose “you don’t even know me, how can you love me?”  How has the grandmother’s relationship with Rose’s own mother affected the family dynamic?

7. What is Joseph trying to accomplish by drawing a “perfect” circle when it, by very definition, is impossible? How does George’s idea to create wallpaper out of the imperfections affect him? How does validation and affection through art recur in the novel and what does it signify?

8. Why does George suddenly conclude Rose’s gift isn’t really a problem and stops investigating it?

9. What is the significance of the mother’s commitment to carpentry (compared to other, short-lived hobbies)? How does this play out in the rest of the novel?

10. What is the impact of Rose’s discovery about her father’s skills?  Did this change the way you see the father?

11. Joseph is described as a desert and geode while Rose is a rainforest and sea glass. Discuss the implications.

12. Why does Rose want to keep the thread-bare footstool of her parents’ courtship instead of having her mother make her a new one?

13. Are the family dinners—with Joseph reading, the dad eating, Rose silently trying to survive the meal and the mom talking non-stop—emblematic of the family dynamic? How has it evolved over the years?

14. How did you experience the scene in Joseph’s room, when Rose goes to see him?  What did that experience mean to Rose? Is there any significance to Joseph choosing a card table chair?

15. What does the last image about the trees have to do with this family?  How do you interpret the last line of the novel?

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About this Author

Aimee Bender is the author of the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own and the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her work has been widely anthologized and has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles.

Suggested Reading

Jennifer Egan, The Keep, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; Helen Grant, The Vanishing Act of Katharina Linden;  Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club, The Radleys; Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife; DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To; Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y, Our Tragic Universe
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