Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal

>> Thursday, June 09, 2016

TITLE: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
AUTHOR: J Ryan Stradal

PAGES: 316

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Who is Eva Thorvald?

To her single father, a chef, she's a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she's a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she's a wanton threat. She's an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva will surprise everyone.

On the day before her eleventh birthday, she's cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, gangly and poor, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion bordering on obsession.

Over the years, her tastes grow, and so do her ambitions. One day Eva will be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her - and she, them - in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. So she - for one - knows exactly who she is by the time her mother returns.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about the family you lose, the friends you make and chance connections that can define a life. Joyful, quirky or brazen, everyone lends their voice to tell Eva's story - one that's as heartwarming as it is irresistible, taking the bitter with the sweet.
This is the story of Eva, a girl who grows up with a miraculous palate and a deep love of food, in spite of her unpromising upbringing. Eva's father was a chef, but he died when Eva was still a baby. Since her mother had just abandoned the two of them when he died, Eva is then brought up by her uncle and aunt, who are... well, whatever the opposite of "foodies" is!

While Eva is the protagonist of the book, her story is told indirectly. Stradal uses a really interesting structure, with a book that is a novel, but also close to a collection of short stories. Each chapter of the book jumps a few years into the future, and is told from a different perspective. Only one chapter is narrated by Eva herself, and that is one that takes place when she's a young child. The narrator is different in each of the others, and it's sometimes characters we've seen before, often people we haven't yet met. In these chapters, the focus really is on the person narrating. Eva is significant to different extents: sometimes she's almost the whole point of the story (like in the chapter narrated by her teenaged suitor), sometimes she's only a peripheral character (like in the chapter narrated by a lady entering baking competitions with her bars). I liked figuring out the connections (e.g. the lady entering baking competitions? She happens to be the teenage boyfriend's stepmum -there are lots of connections like that), and it all comes to a great climax in a fantastic final episode, where quite a few of the different threads come together.

The structure may sound a bit weird, but I really liked it and thought it worked wonderfully. I liked seeing Eva from the outside. Yes, we do lose some intimacy with her, but I think her slight air of mysteriousness worked.

Something I particularly liked was the humour. There are a couple of instances of laugh-out-loud humour, but mostly it's just a constant, low-key thing, present in pretty much every paragraph. It's an observational and quite gentle kind of humour, just my sort of thing.

I also really enjoyed the setting of the US Midwest. There's quite a variety there, from the Scandinavian heritage prominent in the first few chapters, to the much more multicultural city settings later on. Oh, and the food! I felt Stradal hit a happy medium there. There's a true love of food here, both the traditional and the super-sophisticated, and Stradal pokes fun at both sides (my favourite chapter for that was the one with the baking competitions!).

This is not a deep or deeply affecting book, but it was a deeply enjoyable one.



Darlynne 9 June 2016 at 20:57  

Cook County!? Good heavens, my kind of town. And food. I definitely must look at this because, as a location, Cook County is all over the map. I have to wonder at that choice, it's unusual to be that broad. And the library has it. You've made my day, thanks!

Rosario 10 June 2016 at 06:38  

I hope you enjoy it, Darlynne! It's got a very good sense of place :)

Darlynne 22 August 2016 at 03:26  

I just finished and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this book. Everything you said was true and I think this could be a primer on how to tell a story about someone by talking about other people; really kind of ingenious. The ending was ... satisfactory. Thanks!

Darlynne 22 August 2016 at 21:27  

I tried posting yesterday, perhaps my original comment is in moderation. Anyway, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this book--the food, locations, characters, all of it. Drawing the story of one character by painting others was genius; probably been done before but was new to me. Although I could have used more of a happy ending, the one offered was certainly satisfying. I'm so glad you recommended this.

Rosario 26 August 2016 at 08:33  

Hi Darlynne: Yes, sorry, I have my older posts set in moderation, as I've had some issues with spammers mass posting in them (they seem to leave newer posts alone, strangely enough!).

I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! It certainly felt new to me as well, although I agree with you that it must have been done before. The ending worked for me... I felt the more melancholy tone was quite fitting, although part of me was hoping for this big happy reunion ;)

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