“On the eve of her ninth birthday, 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. All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal.”
Both my manager and colleague had read this book before it made its way to me, and they both warned me that a certain event in the book would somewhat surprise me. They weren’t wrong – when I reached it I was somewhat taken aback. I’m talking, of course, about when Rose Edelstein discovers her brother’s special talent. She herself has one odd gift – whenever she eats anything, she can taste the emotions of who has made it. Whether the chef is stressed or rushed, or hates their job, where the ingredients have come from – even what factory a meal comes from.
She discovers this gift on the day before her ninth birthday, when her mother gives her a slice of trial-run lemon birthday cake. Rose can taste her mother’s sadness in there and is immediately overwhelmed by the grief on her tongue. From then on she eats apprehensively, hoping that her ‘talent’ has gone away, but it stays with her, and the experience of eating is forever tainted. Secrets a little girl shouldn’t find out are revealed to her and no-one will help her, either choosing not to believe her or treat her as their own personal emotional barometer – no-one except her brother’s best friend, George. He watches as she eats her way through different home-baked cookies at a store near her house, correctly identifying different people’s emotions in each one.
Her relationship with her parents is hit and miss – her mother favours her mysterious brother Joseph, who very rarely shows his emotions and is prone to disappearances and her father doesn’t seem to know what to say to her. It isn’t until later through the novel that we find out his father could smell people’s emotions, and her father herself is convinced that he has some special gift concerning hospitals, but his refusal to enter one (even during the births and illnesses of his children) means this is always inconclusive. Rose discovers that her brother can assimilate into furniture, and when he disappears one day, turning into a chair, she has no choice but to let her parents believe that he’s run away.
She stays in the same town, working for a little restaurant with wonderful food, eventually making her own food and training as a chef to use her gift as an aide, rather than a curse. It’s there that the novel finishes rather abruptly; trailing off rather than ending. Despite this and a couple of other idiosyncrasies about this novel – the lack of speech marks were distracting at times – I loved this book. Despite its slight vagueness, and emptiness at times, I found its original premise and compelling writing made for a great read. A lovely, poignant ending.