I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, 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 cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.
So I guess this is magical realism? That concept seems kind of nebulous to me, but I think this book must qualify for it. Rose, at 9 years old, starts to taste the emotions of the person who prepared her food. This means cookies can suddenly taste like furious anger, when made by a bakery employee who hates his job. And it means that Rose is suddenly relying on metallic-tasting junk food to avoid knowing too much about those around her.
She certainly knows too much about her mother’s emotional life—as children we often feel strangely responsible for our parents’ feelings and Rose is no exception. She is burdened with too much knowledge too early in life. As a result, she becomes very observant, noticing things that others don’t. She is also a strange mix of very adult and very childlike—it’s like some part of her gets stuck at the nine-year-old point and unable to advance, while another part of her becomes a little old lady.
Somehow, she is also the lynch-pin between the various members of the family—the one who intuits everyone’s secrets and holds the family together despite those secrets, some strange, some mundane. The book is very much Rose’s journey—from shy child to successful-in-her-own-way adult.