The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake provided one of the best book discussions I can remember--good enough to warrant commenting further on the book. Perhaps a slightly deeper look is necessary to really understand what is going on here. There were five of us discussing the book last night,and the range of opinions about the book is what made it such a great discussion.
Two flat out did not like the book. One was frustrated with the fact that it was not plot driven--she was bored; nothing in the book seemed worth caring about. The second was okay with everything until the incident with the brother and the chair, which she felt went too far with the bizarre. Both seemed to take the book at face value, neither one considered that the author might be trying to communicate something other than the story of a family with some very odd issues.
A third person enjoyed the book and what it had to say, but didn't have strong feelings on it either way. I (as you know if you read my review) had a love/hate sort of relationship with the book. I liked that it was unique, that it had something to say--that it was more than just the funny/heartwarming story I'd expected. But I felt that the characters were rather flat, and I had some other issues with the writing that I just couldn't get past.
The reason for revisiting the book, however, is the person who absolutely loved it. Why did she love it? What is she seeing that you might see as well? Mostly, she connected deeply with what she saw as a metaphor for mental illness--things that are carried down through families but dealt with in very different ways through the generations. Some types of mental illness are present from the get-go, others manifest themselves at some point in early adolescence, most can be difficult to understand or explain.
At one point in the book, the main character, Rose, tries to tell her father about her "gift" by creating a story about someone at school. Her father says: I know you're trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what it is. Okay? I don't think I like that. What are you trying to tell me? I saw this as not only an interaction between father and daughter, but between author and reader. The author is trying to say something. What is it? I think that the circumstances in the book were purposefully bizarre in order that the reader would be spurred to ask questions. If you read the book for the surface of the story only, you will be missing something.
The book ends with a story that Rose had read in a magazine, which--while it seems to be unrelated to anything else--is actually an explanation for the book. It speaks of the trees on an island off the coast of California: how one old tree fell over into the ocean--an old elegant palm type, a beauty. It grew closest to the edge of the island, and despite its voracious roots, its enormous trunk, it was no match for the steady impact of beaks and thinner dirt and unprotected weather and the gopher holes that eroded its root system below. Another tree, up a little higher, was also constantly under attack, but found a way to survive. Even though it had tangled branches and a misshapen, leaning trunk, it found a way to cope with the circumstances. Farther up the island, trees grew straight and strong.
Are these trees so different from us? Can those who find it easy to grow straight and strong really understand or judge how it must be for those to whom life is a constant struggle? Is one person's way of coping necessarily better than another's?
If you can relate to, or are interested in understanding, the struggle that some people have in finding a way to live a "normal" life, this book provides an interpretation worth reading. If you enjoy an original metaphor, or books that make you think without being too hard to read, you might enjoy this book. If you really do not like interpreting the concrete in an abstract way, you probably won't like it (the same two that didn't like this book also did not like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle...for pretty much the same reasons.) If you do end up reading it, I'd love to know what you think (especially on the style/quality of the writing--somebody talk to me!). Either way, I hope I've helped to shed more light on the book that created hours of great discussion for our book club.