My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fans of reality TV might possibly recognize the name of the author. J. Ryan Stradal is the producer of some of the more popular entries in that genre, shows like "Ice Road Truckers" and "Deadliest Catch," both of which my husband has watched over the years. I'm not a fan of reality TV myself; I prefer my TV shows to be unreal.
I am a fan, though, of Stradal's writing. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is his first novel and it is a winner. He shows great originality and a sure touch for the development of characters and a character-driven plot.
The structure of this book reminds me very much of another book that I dearly loved, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. As in Olive, we get to know the main character of Kitchens by seeing her through the eyes of other characters. Plus, the physical descriptions of both Olive and Eva Thorvald, the main character here, are somewhat similar. Both are tall and physically imposing women.
We meet Eva first as a baby, just a few months old. Her father is a foodie and she is the apple of his eye (Pun intended!). He looks forward to introducing her to the glorious foods that he loves.
Her mother, on the other hand, has come to the realization that she does not want to be a mother and she abandons her daughter and husband, running off to New Zealand with a dashing sommelier. Father and daughter settle into the routine of single parenthood, in this case with assistance from the father's brother and his partner. When the unimaginable happens and the father dies of a heart attack, the uncle and his wife take over as parents. Eva never remembers the birth father who loved her so much.
Though she doesn't remember him, she has inherited his love of food, along with a once-in-a-generation palate. She is a food prodigy and as she grows, her gastronomic talents are honed to perfection until, by the time she is in her late twenties, she has gained remarkable renown throughout the Midwest and even farther afield as a chef.
Eva's character is developed through eight chapters as we see her first through the eyes of her adoring father and then through a female cousin, a teenage boyfriend, an envious rival, several ancillary characters that she meets during sojourns in the kitchens of various restaurants, and, in the final chapter, through the eyes of that birth mother who abandoned her. In only one chapter do we see things from Eva's point of view, when she is almost eleven and is enduring the taunts of some truly hideous bullies at her school.
Throughout the novel, the characters move through several sites in the Midwest, from Minnesota to Iowa to Chicago to Wisconsin and the Dakotas. It's a region that the author seems to know very well and he conveys its zeitgeist perfectly. He also gives us a quirky and often quite amusing perspective on the modern phenomenon of the foodie culture, as well as an insightful view of the role that food plays in the creation of a sense of community and identity. All in all, this is a very sensual reading experience.
However, the sensuality of it was not always pleasurable.
For me, the word snot is one of the ugliest and most offensive in the English language. I couldn't possibly explain why. It is simply my visceral reaction to the word. Stradal seems to love it. Maybe it has something to do with his experience in reality TV. He lovingly describes snot running down the face of a character, snot collecting on the shirt of a character after it has run down her face and then rubbing onto the shirt of another character when he hugs her. He even describes snot-colored food (lutefisk)!
That kind of literary tic - the overuse of a particular word - is the sort of thing that grates on my reading nerve endings and can totally put me off a book. Nevertheless, I persevered and was rewarded with a mostly enjoyable reading experience. Kitchens of the Great Midwest has received much critical acclaim and it is well-deserved. It is a remarkable first novel.
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