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.
The book concerns an apparently happy normal middle-class family in modern-day Los Angeles. In many ways it is the Bildungsroman of the central character and the book's narrator Rose. But the family is far from happy and normal. The book opens with Rose's discovery of her "gift" and at the same time she discovers how unhappy her mother is. At the age of nine this is a difficult discovery: Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn't appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early. But the discovery is made worse by the fact Rose is unable to talk about her gift, on one occasion she gags as she tries to eat food prepared by her mother she says YOU'RE IN MY MOUTH, I said. GET OUT OF MY MOUTH and not surprisingly her mother doesn't understand and the doctor's reaction is to suspect bulimia. After that Rose finds ways of avoiding eating emotion-tainted food, but cannot avoid all her mother's food which means she is able to taste when her mother starts an affair.
Her brother has autistic tendencies and seldom responds to his little sister. Her father seems blissfully unaware of what is going on and is bad at communicating. Each appears to be in their own world, with the sensitive and undervalued Rose bearing their sadness. I found the simple statement Mom loved my brother more quite heartbreaking.
After the first part, the focus of the book shifts to Joseph, Rose's brother as he tries to get away from his doting mother and find a space for himself. Then he disappears only to reappear again. He fails to get into the Ivy League College of his choice but still manages to persuade his mother to allow him to take a room near his college. He keeps disappearing and then one day Rose discovers him turning into a chair. We are now at the surreal end of magic realism.
Furniture seems to play an important and symbolic part in the lives of the family. Rose's father persuades her mother that he is reliable by finding a pink stool, which Rose sentimentally saves. Her maternal grandmother sends packages of broken furniture and household goods to the family, including the chair Joseph becomes. Rose's mother succeeds in keeping a job which makes furniture - her affair is with a fellow worker. I haven't been able to work out what this symbolizes.
When at last Rose talks to her father about her gift/curse he tells her that her grandfather had a similar gift and that he (her father) feared he might have one too, which is why he does not go into hospitals for fear that he will find out what it is. It seems all the family have been trying to cope with their "gifts" some better than others. Towards the end of the book Rose starts working in a restaurant.
I have been trying to analyse my response to this book. Although I am a fan of magic realism, I do tend to like some logic within it and there were a number of aspects of the tale, especially the chair transformation scene, which felt somehow wrong. Maybe if I had understood the symbolism involved, I might have felt happier. Maybe I don't like surrealism. The book also felt very bleak, the resolutions even for Rose were only partial at best.