Book Review: *The Kitchen Daughter* by Jael McHenry

  • The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery; Original edition (April 12, 2011)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439191699

Back-of-the-book blurb: After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I loved this novel!  Oh, you want to know why … here goes … The Kitchen Daughter has all the right components – realistic characters, a compelling plot, dialogue that rings true (anyone who’s ever argued with a sister will agree!), and a family secret ingredient.  Even the format adds to the balance, with recipes that are integral to the story, without being gimmicky or distracting.

Jael McHenry had me at “Bread Soup,” which is the title of Chapter One.  Each chapter is named for a recipe, included (on an illustration that looks like a hand-written recipe card) at the top of the page.

In “Bread Soup,” we meet the narrator;  Ginny Selvaggio is a woman in her mid-twenties who is “socially awkward,” – uncomfortable in close physical contact with others, averse to crowds, hesitant to make eye contact – and has shown compulsive tendencies (she went through a “Turkish rug” phase as a child, now finds security in the solid geometry of rectangles).  She has always been sheltered by her parents, following “the rules” as outlined by her mother. Readers may recognize the behavior of someone who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

In this excerpt, Ginny is struggling with the mass of mourners who have descended on her parents’ home – her home – after their untimely death (p 2):

But at home, things are worse.  There isn’t even a moment for me to be alone before the house fills up.  Strangers are here.  Disrupting my patterns.  Breathing my air.  I’m not just bad at crowds, crowds are bad at me.  If it were an ordinary day, if things were right and not wrong, I’d be sitting down with my laptop to read Kitcherati, but my laptop is up in my attic room on the third floor.  There are too many bodies between me and the banister and I can’t escape upstairs.  This is my only home and I know every inch of it, but right now it is invaded.  If I look up I’ll see their faces, so instead I look down and see all their feet.  Their shoes are black like licorice or brown like brisket, tracking in the winter slush and salt from the graveyard and the street.  Dozens.

Note how Ginny uses “licorice” and “brisket” to describe the shoes.  Her senses are in tune with food, the familiar and comforting rhythms of cooking center her when the world around her is escalating.

Without the support of her parents, Ginny now needs to navigate that world alone.  Perhaps she’ll find her way indirectly, through her routines, Gert (the housekeeper), and Midnight (her cat).  And her cooking – Ginny’s collection of hand-written recipe cards may be the key to getting herself back on her feet. However, Ginny’s attempts to prove her independence are thwarted by her younger sister, Amanda, who makes many assumptions about Ginny’s future.

As I read Ginny’s story – so authentically told in her voice – I ran through a seemingly endless wheel of emotions – empathy, surprise, anger, happiness, sadness, and -ultimately – satisfaction.  Never did I feel the author was manipulating my emotions; I really was so caught up in Ginny’s narration that I walked in her shoes and felt her reactions to a degree.

Did I have a problem with Nonna’s ghost, or the idea that Ginny attempted to conjure others through her cooking?  Not at all.  I accepted it as magical realism or Ginny’s way of coping.  I didn’t over-analyze or struggle with it; I simply let the story unfold around me and Ginny in that very rectangular kitchen.

In the process of learning more about herself, Ginny explores her relationships with her mother, her father, and Amanda.  Or, maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg thing … maybe exploring those relationships led to a better understanding of her own self.  Either way you crack it, The Kitchen Daughter is a literary omelette to be savored, filled with all my favorites and a few surprises.  (You thought I wouldn’t stoop to a play-on-words pertaining to food?! That’s nuts!)

Author Jael McHenry earned her MFA in creative writing at American University; her work has been published in North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review.  She is a passionate home cook who blogs at The Simmer Blog.  You can read more about her and The Kitchen Daughter on her website, and follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Review copy of The Kitchen Daughter was provided by Simon and Schuster / Gallery Books and TLC Book Tours.  Check out the complete TLC Book Tour schedule below – you may find author interviews, guest posts, and a giveaway or two (you might want to stop back here tomorrow, too … I’m just saying!)

15 comments to Book Review: *The Kitchen Daughter* by Jael McHenry

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>